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Eking out a living, stretching every dollar to make ends meet – and trying not to go crazy in the process – are all challenges many families face these days.

Take the Fuentes family, for instance. Single mom Felicia is a high school dropout who is having a hard time finding a job. She relies primarily on money from social service agencies to get by.

In the Zuppot household, 52-year-old Zeke is a diabetic with mobility issues. In addition to his hefty medical bills and pricey prescriptions, he and wife Zora are the legal guardians of their 7-year-old grandson, Zander, and 9-year-old granddaughter, Zenobia. Zeke and Zora do the best they can with limited resources, and he often has to make choices that are not financially sound.

“I’m really getting frustrated,” said Zeke.

The truth is that, while the Zuppot and Fuentes families were fictional characters in a poverty simulation exercise Monday, the problems they faced are all too real for too many families.

The purpose of the exercise called CASH – Creating Assets, Savings and Hope – was to show participants at the American Red Cross building on Delaware Avenue what it’s like to live below the poverty line.

The participants/actors were full- and part-time Wegmans employees from 10 area stores. The workers took on the roles of low-income families – from single parents trying to care for their children, to senior citizens trying to maintain their independence on Social Security.

For the exercise, the participants “lived” in poverty for five weeks – or about three hours in real time. Each “week” lasted about 15 minutes and presented various obstacles that real-life families face. In addition, fictitious agencies and businesses were set up to help the families.

Organizers say the CASH Coalition – a United Way of Buffalo & Erie County initiative involving some 60 organizations – helps to raise awareness for people who live outside of poverty, who may have a hard time understanding the everyday struggles of people who do.

When Beth Bell stepped out of character as 9-year-old Zenobia, she said she was feeling a little overwhelmed by the Zuppot family scenario, which included the family’s getting robbed the first week.

“That kind of put the mortgage back, and we didn’t eat the first week,” said Bell, a team leader at the Williamsville Wegmans on Sheridan Drive.

“It’s confusing trying to figure out what to do first, what to pay first. It’s a challenge realizing how far is the money going to go,” Bell added.

Angela D’Orazio, who works at the Niagara Falls Wegmans, played Zeke, who applied for cash benefits and food benefits through a fictitious social services agency but was denied.

As a legal guardian, Zeke was eligible to receive $414 a month. However, it wouldn’t kick in for four to six weeks.

In addition, Zeke’s family does not have a car, so the family relies on transportation passes to get around. But because of financial limitations, Zeke only has enough money to buy transportation passes one at a time, which is more expensive in the long run, as he found out from the fictitious check-cashing business owner.

“You’re my best customer,” Phil Conomos said to Zeke when the 52-year-old diabetic came to purchase public/mass transportation passes for the family.

“He’s back here all the time rather than buying in bulk. It’s cheaper,” said Conomos, who is really a Wegmans meat manager at the Transit Road location.

The poverty simulation has been administered by the United Way for more than four years to businesses such as Wegmans, universities and colleges and community groups, said Katie Lyons, project director at the United Way.

The initiative was developed by the Missouri Association for Community Action, a statewide association of community agencies fighting poverty.

email: dswilliams@buffnews.com