Experiencing the United Way’s ‘Walk a Mile’ program

Dorie Fain
Dorie Fain is the founder and CEO of &Wealth, a boutique financial advisory firm dedicated to helping women who are recreating their lives, with offices in New York City and Baltimore.

Published 2/18/2019 in The Maryland Daily Record

A few weeks ago saw the kickoff of the 2019 class of the Baltimore Leadership program, a class I am privileged to be a part of. The two-day opening program was full of content that was informative, thought-provoking, fun, inspirational and transformative. Most impactful was the afternoon spent with the people from the United Way who brought in their Walk a Mile program, which is designed to create an experience for people to “walk a mile” in the shoes of a family dealing with poverty.

Almost immediately, the impact of the experience takes hold. The United Way simulates the complexity of family dynamics, employment, finances, medical matters, transportation, childcare, shopping and a variety of other factors faced by a family living in poverty. Each of my classmates was assigned a role in a family. In my group of five people, I was assigned to be the mother of the family. Living in my apartment were my two children, ages 8 and 6 months; my mother; and my 19-year-old nephew. My mother and nephew helped take care of my children while I worked 12-plus-hour days, six days per week.

Volunteers were set up at a variety of stations around the room. Each represented an agency or a service that was needed in the community. No matter where we needed to go to sustain our weekly schedule and needs, transportation tickets were required. A limited amount of money or stipends was provided and the rest we had to figure out as the week went on. The Walk a Mile day was broken into three shifts.  As the primary earner in our family, I left early each morning to go to my day job in shift 1. After this finished, I traveled to my second job for shift 2 and finally returned home each night after 11 p.m. This was my schedule for six days of the week. Only on Saturdays did I have a break – I worked only my second shift job. Thankful for my mother to care for my baby, I relied on the school bus to get my 8-year-old daughter to school and my nephew to pick her up from after care every day.

This all may sound challenging yet achievable to the outside observer. The obvious lack of time with my children and family soon became evident. On three of the five days that week, I was marked late for work, which resulted in a loss of money in my paycheck. When I tried to fight this because I actually had been on time, I was told I would be replaced if I complained. The treatment we received from our employers and service providers in this simulated community was dismissive, disrespectful and robotic — as though we weren’t people who mattered. Meanwhile, while I was at work, my mother was trying to manage all the needs in our home: taking care of the children, paying the bills, getting the groceries and attending required school meetings, among other responsibilities.

This seemed to work out OK until the third day, when my mother broke her hip and became bedridden. My childcare was now up in the air and my mother needed care. If I missed work, I would get fired. My nephew was working to get his life back on track after my sister threw him out of her home. He was trying to find work, but I relied on him to pick up my 8-year-old from school each day, which greatly affected his work availability. He wasn’t totally dependable, however, and would forget to pick up my daughter a few days a week, which prompted the school to schedule a mandatory parent conference. I couldn’t attend, though, because I couldn’t risk losing my job – my family’s lifeline. On my only day off, my 8-year-old came with me to the cash exchange, but the line was so long that the day turned into evening. I couldn’t risk losing my second shift job, so I had to leave my daughter there to cash the check and get home by herself to give the money to my nephew so he could buy groceries for dinner.

This is just a sample of the daily complexity that we faced as a family trying to make things work with very limited resources. The many challenges we faced were real. We did everything we could to make things work, but we were born into poverty and the system presented significant challenges. The feeling of despair has stayed with me.

Dorie Fain, founder and CEO of &Wealth