A little while ago, I disclosed what it was I did for work. (I hadn’t realised this had been a secret until I saw all the “…so THAT’S what you do!” messages floating on in!) Working in the non-profit sector has been an amazing ride over the last two and a half years, a ride in which I’ve unearthed a passion for helping those less fortunate, been given an outlet in which to grow, and developed an incredible appreciation for everything I have. There are no words to describe the feeling of joy that accompanies watching someone’s life turn around in the span of a few months, and being in a position that exists to help rather than make profit is truly a blessing. But that’s not to say that every once in a while it doesn’t tug at the heart strings.
Sadly, I see so many people every day who’ve fallen victim to an array of sad life circumstances. They may be disabled, on welfare, in abusive relationships, or recently made redundant. Remember Greg? Heartbreaking, right? Often, they don’t have access to things like fresh fruit or vegetables, or even a telephone line. Sometimes, they may not even have a home address. The disturbing reality of wanting to help people is the fact that it’s a requirement for those people to need that help in the first place. At work, the testimonial I hear over and over again, however, is that the people that come here feel, often for the first time in a very long time, welcomed, cared about, and not judged. It’s so easy to judge a book by its cover, but taking the time to hear someone’s story and see them as a real person might just be the best give you could ever give them.
So last week, I had an opportunity to learn what it’s like to live like some of our clients have to every day. An e-mail was circulated amongst staff asking if anyone was interested in taking the “Poverty Challenge”- to live on a budget of $25 for seven days. That included all food and beverages, all personal hygiene products, as well as bills. You could earn a few extra dollars here and there by going without things like television $1 per day), mobile phones ($2 per day) or a shower/load of laundry ($1.50 per day). You had to go into it starting with absolutely nothing, and live on a similar budget to that of many of those on our welfare system. I knew it would be tough, but I like to think I at least attempt a challenge when it’s presented! Plus I thought it would go a long way in deepening an understanding of (and care for) many of the people I see every day. At the beginning of the week, those who’d signed up had a meeting. There were only five in attendance.
On the first day, I buggered up right away and went on a Starbucks run with my coworkers. After I’d paid my $5 I was mortified as my prior obligation immediately made its way back to the forefront of my mind. I resolved to be 100% diligent and disciplined for the rest of the week, went shopping, and spent $20 of my $25 on food that I hoped would get me through the next seven days. A loaf of bread could be used for sandwiches at lunch, as well as toast in the mornings. Margarine was a luxury anyway. A couple of cans of tuna would last several days for lunch, and a bag of plain oatmeal, though pretty tasteless, would be a good start to the day that would probably keep me full longer. Dinner was the tough part. I bought one jar of cheap pasta sauce and a box of spaghetti, two boxes of Kraft Dinner, and a carton of Hamburger Helper (SO gross), which I knew would leave me with leftovers for at least two nights. I calculated what was in my shopping basket to see if I’d have enough for cheese. Just about, but I’d have to ration it. And that’s what lasted me all week. No fresh produce, no soy milk, no multivitamins, no tea or coffee, no snacks, and no juice. Tiny little things I usually weave into the fabric of every day without thinking twice became luxuries I couldn’t afford. I had to “earn” an extra few dollars by skipping a shower or a load of washing a few times, or refraining from using Internet or television (hence a bit of an absence from the blogosphere!).
I learned a copious amount over the last week, and as difficult as it was, I’m glad I went through it. I found quickly that I was learning not to waste – instead of making a big meal and scraping what I didn’t eat into the bin for example, I’d make an extra effort to take only half, and save some for the next day. I found the most difficult thing was learning how to say no to things I generally take for granted – even simple things like going on a coffee run with colleagues was $2 I didn’t have, so I definitely felt almost… embarrassed at not being able to partake. Embarrassment was a feeling that manifested itself throughout the week, not just at the workplace (an aptly timed “breakfast meeting” at a restaurant took place part-way through the week) but at home, too – I had to turn down invitations for coffee, lunch and dinner with friends, and had to show up at a friend’s barbeque over the weekend empty-handed. I noticed a difference in my energy levels – not being able to snack during the day contributed to increased levels of fatigue, hunger and – shock, horror – irritability! I then realised I’d been rationing so much I had a whole box of Kraft Dinner left for the last day, and got incredibly excited – not a usual feeling about food, but very much so after going without so much all week. Not being able to take multivitamins in combination with the cheap brands of basic soap and shampoo took its toll on my skin, and I found myself breaking out more towards the end of the week too.
In summary, doing the Poverty Challenge was definitely an eye-opening experience. It’s so sad to know that so many people have to live like this, and my heart absolutely goes out to them for getting through every day, often with a completely positive attitude, too. This really made me thankful for everything I have, especially the little luxuries about which I wouldn’t normally think twice. I think I’m going to be more mindful over the next little while – asking myself if I really need that Starbucks, or thinking twice about the size of my meals, and being more aware of the possibility of making them stretch to a second day. I’ll take my time when eating, appreciating it if only for the fact that I didn’t have to struggle to get it. And I will make a conscious decision to try and spread what I’ve learned, to try not to waste, and always try to do what I can to help those in need.
Do you think you’d be able to take the Poverty Challenge? What daily things do you feel lucky to have, or be able to do without struggling?