Thursday, May 12, 2005

Dozens of students in Southeast got a dose of reality as they learned what it’s like to be a hard-working adult with bills to pay.

More than 40 eighth-graders at John Philip Sousa Middle School on Wednesday learned how to save, invest and spend their hard-earned dollars during a half-day workshop called the “Reality Store.”

They got a chance to see whether their net income and monthly expenses would allow them to live the type of lifestyle they want.

“The ‘Reality Store’ is a life skills experience,” said Martina Nicholson, a program specialist with the D.C. Department of Human Services/Family Services Administration’s Teen Parent Assessment Project, which sponsored the workshop.

The Teen Parent Assessment Project is designed to help teenage parents move toward self-sufficiency, Ms. Nicholson said. The program’s outreach efforts provide D.C. youth with workshops that focus on teen-pregnancy prevention, personal responsibility, accountability, life skills, self-esteem and character building.

“Although, the students are playing the game of life, I want them to make very real choices because by doing so, it will give them a glimpse into what they are capable of accomplishing in their lives, if they just stop, think, plan and make good decisions,” Ms. Nicholson said. “I always tell them that most people don’t plan to fail. It’s just that they fail to plan.”

After completing a short questionnaire that indicated their future lifestyles and occupations, students stopped at a booth that represented a bank to find out how much money they would earn a year.

Using a checkbook register, they proceeded to the Reality Store and stopped at different stations, each representing the challenges of adult life: child care, health insurance, buying groceries, clothes and transportation, and decorating and maintaining a home.

At each station, the students learned just how much they could afford.

DHS staff and other professionals, who sat at each station, counseled the students and urged them to avoid becoming pregnant and to stay in school so they could be successful.

If they ran out of money before they completed their trip through the Reality Store, the students would go back and reconsider their decisions about their lifestyle, the type of job they would have, or the size of their family.

Christy Burroughs, 14, decided she would be a full-time choreographer and a part-time fashion designer. According to her profile, Christy was single, with no children, and that she would earn more than $3,000 a month.

Following Ms. Nicholson’s advice, Christy immediately set aside some of her income into a savings account. “Earn, save, invest, then spend equals wealth or at least comfort,” Ms. Nicholson told Christy at the bank station.

Christy socked away $500 a month into savings, doled out a $758 mortgage payment on a one-bedroom condo and spent $285 for utilities. Christy also paid for food and clothing.

She watched her money slowly dwindle.

Christy wants to drive a Mazda Miata, so that would cost her $420 in monthly car payments. She also needs health insurance, which would cost her $48 a month. She also needs to set aside $220 on car and house maintenance, donations, personal items and leisure activities.

Christy ended up with $310.27 at the end of the month. She said the exercise in money management enlightened her.

“I learned not to spend a lot of money foolishly and to stay away from credit cards,” Christy said. “I also learned to watch what you do when it comes to your money and to pay attention to where your money is being spent.”

After leaving the Reality Store, Ryan Barrett said he now has a better understanding about what being an adult entails.

“It’s about being financially responsible,” the 14-year-old said. “Now, I know what my Mom goes through [every month] since I’ve been through the process. I have a much better understanding of what she deals with. The ‘Reality Store’ has given me insight into the future.”

Ricardo Lyles, administrator of the Family Services Administration, said he was impressed by the students’ willingness to adjust their spending and make wiser decisions once they reviewed the bottom line.

Mr. Lyles manned the food station and queried students on whether their budgets would allow them to shop at Giant, Safeway or Whole Foods Market. “I thought the students were pretty flexible in making their decisions,” he said. “All they needed was a little dose of reality.”

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