Credit Union Staff Increase Empathy, Knowledge Through Life Simulation

Clinton Barry (Greenville FCU) approaches Kerri Smith (Turbine FCU) to pawn a refrigerator to raise extra money.

Clinton Barry (Greenville FCU) approaches Kerri Smith (Turbine FCU) to pawn a refrigerator to raise extra money.

It is beyond a doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience. —Immanuel Kant

A few months ago, The Bridge focused on the Reality of Money, a credit union financial simulation for high school students in North Carolina and South Carolina. The aim of that program of course is to prepare students for adult life and to help students have a greater awareness of the value of sound money management, getting an education and making good life choices. 

Last month, Upstate-area credit unions recently rolled out  a different simulation — but this time the target audience is credit union staff and volunteers. Called the Life Simulation, it is an exercise developed by the National Credit Union Foundation.  The experience is designed to help credit union employees, volunteers and leadership begin to understand what it might be like to live in a typical low-income family trying to survive from month-to-month. The Life Simulation is made available to all credit unions in North Carolina and South Carolina through a partnership between Coastal FCU, Carolina Foothills FCU and the Carolinas CU League.

The 50 credit union staff were randomly organized into families with varying life situations and roles. Here, they are receiving their instructions prior to beginning the simulation.

The 50 credit union staff were randomly organized into families with varying life situations and roles. Here, they are receiving their instructions prior to beginning the simulation.

The first Life Simulation was held in Greenville, SC in July. About 50 participants from Upstate-area credit unions were organized randomly into “families” coping with various life situations. Some might have jobs, while others might be unemployed, or on a disability or fixed income. Some included children being raised by grandparents or single parents.

Each participant received instructions on how to properly play their role, and had to navigate a series of booths during four 15 minute “weeks” of the simulation.  “I became overwhelmed when trying to keep my household’s finances in good standing with the limited money and time provided to me in this exercise,” said Koy Stone, who is a branch manager at SC Telco FCU.

Koy Stone_comp“The most important thing that I took away from this simulation was a better understanding of how a person’s financial stability can be completely derailed when something outside their control occurs.”

Koy Stone, SC Telco FCU

Some of those random events might include getting fired from work, evicted from a home or having the electricity disconnected.  High fees, poor service and outright cheating was common with the service providers, which included a payday lender, pawn shop and grocery store.  One random volunteer also tried to commit crimes and get participants to as well.

“I wouldn’t say that I experienced emotions, more like a general sense of frustration,” said Talbert Black, operations specialist at Upstate FCU.  “Where one person within the (family) might see a clear path to success another might see making a bad decision as the only way to free up the funds needed to proceed.”

Black added that these situations allowed him to better empathize with people living in poverty. “I feel as though the string of bad decisions that each family undergoes is indicative of the real, everyday struggles that some of our members face.”

Poverty Rates (US Census Bureau Data)

North Carolina: 17.2%

South Carolina: 18%

Amanda Crawford, the marketing manager at Carolina Foothills FCU, has previously gone through the simulation as a participant. She served as a volunteer at the Greenville event. She reflected that both were learning experiences. “When I was a participant I had a very heavy burden of helplessness.  As a volunteer I really wanted to help more than I could … it was hard seeing the people realize they couldn’t pay the bills even though they wanted to.”

All these experiences in the simulation aim to increase the  empathy and awareness credit union staff have of people who are facing a health crisis or financial emergency – or struggling to get by on a daily basis. In doing so, credit unions can better strive to meet the needs of vulnerable members through better service, products and policies.

Better service, products and policies – it’s a worthy goal of every co-operative. And as Kant might say, the knowledge of how to provide all those things can come from the experience exercises like the Life Simulation provide.

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