Alex Monroe, who is entering eighth grade, learned something unexpected about poverty when his parents didn’t give him a choice about attending the Super Summer class, Community Action Program for Students.

“My mom signed me up,” Alex said. “She said she didn’t want me sitting around playing video games all summer.”

Alex, along with students who did choose to enroll in the CAPS class, has spent nearly two weeks learning how the causes of poverty—and ways to solve it— are complex issues.

For example, people in poverty have limited choices when it comes to getting their basic needs met, according to Sipele Quezada, the Ames Community School District’s Homeless/Connect Coordinator, who’s teaching the course.

This concept resonated with Alex, who said, “It doesn’t feel good to have no choice. I feel kind of angry.”

Alex said he is learning more from the course than he expected, however.

“The average age of a homeless American is 9 years old —that was surprising to me,” he said. “I thought it was like an old guy under the bridge.”

Cassidy Peterson, who said she chose the course because she likes helping people and wanted to learn what poverty truly entails, said she didn’t realize so many factors contribute to poverty.

“I thought poverty was just not having enough money to buy things,” she said.  “It’s more than that. You can get evicted and bad things can happen in a chain of events.”

Cassidy said she’s learning to not judge people.

“You never know what they’ve been through,” she said.

Roni Ben-Shlomo said she chose the course because wanted to know what people in poverty have been through.

“I wanted to do a poverty simulation,” she said. “Now I want more people to understand what poverty is like. I have an idea for a tutorial at the middle school in home room class or handouts for students to show their parents so they would understand.  I think everybody needs to understand what poverty is.”

Cassidy said she thinks helping students understand poverty would reduce clique behavior at school.

“People are usually classified into groups,” she said. “And it’s kind of mean. I’d like to have more team building activities so we get to know each other better.”

Roni said more people need to understand poverty in order for change to happen.

“Being friends with people in poverty and welcoming them into our groups is a good place to start,” she said.

Quezada says helping families find strong relationships and informal supports is a key component to ending the cycle of poverty and dependency on systematic support.

The CAPS class was created on the momentum of the Community Action Poverty Simulation for community leaders this past April, Quezada said, to give fifth-through-eighth grade students the opportunity to learn about poverty and homelessness, participate in various poverty simulations, and hear from community organizations who serve students and families in poverty.

“We do have homelessness and poverty in Ames, but because it doesn’t look like the images on television, many residents don’t realize the extent of the problem,” Quezada said. “If we want to create change in our community, we need more people to know and understand this.”

Quezada said one expectation for the class is for students take use something they learned and develop a plan to helps schools or community address the needs of students and families.

“The class’ success has far exceeded my expectations,” she said. “It’s amazing to see the compassion these students have for their peers. Their eagerness to get involved and lead change is energizing.”

Super Summer is a two-week summer program for high-ability students that offers special courses not generally accessible in the regular school curriculum, taught by a community professionals or instructors in student’s chosen fields of interest, and giving students an opportunity to study a particular subject content area in-depth.