Jan Montanye Castillo and Causewave Community Partners President and CEO Todd Butler take part in the “Walk in My Shoes” Rural Partners Poverty Simulation.

For a few hours one morning in July, medical dental coordinator Jan Montanye Castillo experienced what life is like to be poor in rural New York. In her role, playing a young Latino man, Montanye Castillo encountered the many frustrating barriers that non-English speaking residents face trying to get needed services.  

Montanye Castillo’s experience was part of the Rural Partners Poverty Simulation presented July 20 at the Genesee River Restaurant in Mount Morris. The simulation is an immersive, role-playing exercise that aims to help decision makers better understand the factors contributing to rural poverty and the difficulties people have in navigating the financial, educational, business and social services systems.

“Sitting on the other side of the table, so to speak, makes us think about what we are saying and how we are saying it,” said Montanye Castillo, who works for Geneseo Migrant Center.

“As an agency, we need to be able to empathize with our clients. The simulation was really helpful for our day-to-day operations making sure that our services are sensitive towards the clients,” she said.

Presented by Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency, Coordinated Care Services Inc. and S2AY Rural Health Network, the experience gives participants a glimpse into rural poverty and help them explore such issues as the misalignment of agency services, lack of proactive or preventive services and unrealized potential among people living within the community.

“It is always important that we begin by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” Wade Norwood, chief strategy officer for Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency, urged the group as they reflected on their experience.

During the simulation, participants were encouraged to leave behind their reality and enter the reality of the people they were portraying. The simulation used a compressed time schedule to help drive home the struggle of functioning against limited time with limited resources.

Additionally, such services as unscrupulous check cashing drove home how difficult it is for a person living in poverty to build up savings to improve their financial situation.

One participant who portrayed a pregnant teenager noted that she didn’t receive prenatal care because she couldn’t afford the copay.

Kim Preston, with the nonprofit Genesee-Orleans Ministry of Concern, said the experience was frustrating. To help make ends meet, she ended up stealing gas, even though that was not something she ever would have done in real life.

“Life kept on throwing things at you,” Preston said. “The difficulty was not having at least someone else in life – there was no one to rely on.”

Tammie Golden, who tutors Orleans County students who have been suspended and expelled through the Just Friends Mentor Program, said her students are coping with many challenges explored in the simulation, such as lack of services and unstable families.

“This is what I hear every day. It just added to my empathy and understanding,” she said of the event.