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How these Indiana 4-H youths put themselves in the shoes of the less fortunate

“We sacrificed our baby so we could eat dinner,” Bennett, an Indiana 4-H member from Hendricks County explained to a group of his peers.

The room erupted in laughter.

In April, Bennett and a group of 43 4-H youths were debriefing after a night spent cooking, sleeping, cleaning and trying to stay warm amid slum-like conditions in the pouring rain as part of Heifer International’s Global Gateway program, hosted at its Arkansas ranch.

Heifer International is a charity that works around the world to alleviate hunger and other symptoms of poverty through community building and sustainable development. The Global Gateway experience was devised to offer a perspective to students about the struggles those living in poverty face every day across the globe.

The culminating event of the trip involved students spending the night in a Global Village with different structures that mimicked those from a variety of countries.  Some students found themselves in Guatemala, a structure with beds, an indoor fireplace, a functional roof, running water, and a nearby toilet. Others stayed in dirt slums, small rickety shacks with dirt floors. Other camps in the simulation included a bamboo house modeled after residences in Thailand, a mud hut from Zambia, and a refugee camp.

At the start of the simulation, 4-H youths and adult chaperones were split into families. Each family was then assigned to a camp and received a set of resources. Some, like Guatemala, boasted a large amount of food. Others, like Zambia, maintained rights to all the firewood. Others, in this case, the refugee family, received zero resources. Additionally, one person in each camp assumed responsibility for a baby, in the form of a water balloon, and another was assigned an ailment.

Global Gateway Trip with Indiana 4-H

These illnesses ranged from blindness to severe bacterial infections. The student burdened with blindness wore a pair of glasses taped over with duct tape. Another with a broken arm had the offending limb bound to his chest. Those with babies had one main task: Keep the infant alive. This charge required acquiring milk for the infant before nightfall and keeping the balloon in contact with a person at all times. It didn’t seem like much of a challenge at first. Students laughed about “becoming a mother” and walked around jokingly showing off their “child”. But a few hours later, as groups struggled to build a fire in the rain, debated whether to trade scarce resources for milk and, in some cases, resorted to stealing from other camps, the fake baby began to seem a lot less like a joke and a lot more like an additional hurdle to warmth and dinner.

Which is what Bennett, part of the dirt-floor slums family, was communicating to the room as he made light of sacrificing the baby in favor of resources for dinner. The family had to choose between trading its limited resources for milk for the baby or for food and firewood to sustain the entire camp.

The two Heifer International facilitators overseeing the simulation, however, were not laughing.

“We wanted you to have a baby to experience what it’s actually like when you have to make these choices,” Hannah, one of the facilitators said. “Maybe for you this is a game, but in the real world it’s not a joke.”

Emma, another Heifer facilitator, shared her story. “Choosing between food and a baby is a real situation people experience every day,” she said. “I’m adopted. The reason I was put up for adoption is because my mother worked in a brothel and couldn’t continue to care for me in addition to my other seven siblings.”

The room of students fell suddenly silent.

The impact of the experience was evident in the contrast of questions students lobbed at their chaperones and facilitators before and after the simulation. In the day leading up to the simulation the air was peppered with slightly nervous inquiries about practicalities:

               “Will there be drinking water?”

                “Where will go to the bathroom?”

                “What if we can’t start a fire?”

                “Do we get breakfast?”

                “Can we leave if we want to?”

As it turned out, not a single student abandoned the simulation in the middle of the night. The questions they voiced at the morning debriefing reflected the significance of that one night:

               “Some people were stealing from other camps. Isn’t that against the rules?”

                “Are people living like that in this country?”

                “How can Thailand and Zambia actually cooperate in the real world?”

                “Is it difficult to bring aid to people in countries where the government is corrupt?”

Wade from the Martin County 4-H team said he knew people lived in difficult conditions, but knowing isn’t the same as experiencing and his night in the Global Village offered necessary perspective.

“There were many times I woke up in the middle of the night with my sleeping bag full of water and I was completely soaked,” he said.  “It’s almost impossible to work well, be healthy and productive when you’re living in conditions like that.”

“In my brain, I was telling myself it’s only one night,” Taylor from Jackson County said. “Anyone that has to survive that for an extended period of time is stronger than I can imagine.”

These photos were taken at Global Village at Heifer Ranch. Students spent the evening and night trading resources, trying to stay dry, starting fires, and learning how to collaborate so everyone might access water, warmth, food, and shelter.

Despite knowing the experience would end the next day, tensions ran high, and more than a few dramas unfolded during the night from a rash of thievery between camps to a heated disagreement about the best way to cook with cornmeal.

“The hardest part for me wasn’t the rain or the cold, it was seeing the kids in the beginning saying let’s just take care of ourselves,” Dena Held, chaperone and Martin County Extension Educator said. “You wanted to tell them to work together, but when they finally did it was more meaningful because they figured it out by themselves.”

Held added that by the end of the night camps were bartering with each other for more than just food and firewood, they were sharing camp stoves, cooking tips, skills and physical labor.

“In the wood floor slums we didn’t have much we could trade with so we traded labor and favors,” Wade said, “like helping to carry firewood and doing tasks for other camps.”

“I earned us cornmeal by helping the Guatemala camp to start a fire,” Taylor added.

a pig outdoors

These stories and more trickled out through the day as students vented their frustrations and lauded victories from the night before. The relief was palpable as participants looked forward to a guaranteed meal and a soft, dry place to bed down for the night. As youths continued to reflect, however, it became obvious their greatest challenge and takeaway was not spending a night in the rain but meeting the goal of this trip as defined by Indiana 4-H Youth Development: to creatively find ways to share lessons learned about issues of poverty and inequality with their communities, and to take action to combat poverty locally and abroad.

“Many of them have started to absorb lessons about inequality, but this experience will stick with them for a long time,” Held said. “I think it’s something they’ll revisit for years. It is going to take a lot of support and education when we return home to deepen and develop those ideas.”

Before leaving Heifer Ranch, students sat down with their community teams to develop county action plans. Goals included will begin to chip away at food insecurity, lack of affordable housing, sustainability, and other issues linked to inequality and poverty.

Martin County proposed launching a food drive at the county fair. Lake County will establish a program to grow and supply fresh produce to a local home for veterans. And Scott County decided to begin a campaign to encourage composting in nearby schools. Eleven Indiana counties were represented at the retreat and all were left with concrete approaches to making a difference at home.

“Poverty isn’t always visible, especially in our counties,” Bennett said. “Just because a person isn’t living in a hut or a slum, though, doesn’t mean they’re not suffering.”

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