April 10, 2014

Columbia eighth-graders get dose of reality

Event gives Columbia middle schoolers a glimpse of adulthood

by Mitchell Kirk Staff reporter

---- — When Columbia Middle School eighth-grader Emily Ritter arrived at class Wednesday morning, she became a 28-year-old business owner making $35,000 a year with three kids.

Suddenly she was responsible for balancing a budget around childcare and groceries. Eventually she had to pick up a second job and ended up using all of her savings. To top it all off, the car accident she got in set her back $100.

“It taught me to watch what I spend,” Emily said of the Reality Store event sponsored by the Purdue Club of Cass County at Columbia Middle School. She was one of many eighth-graders who participated in the simulation by choosing a career and receiving a salary to divide among a month’s worth of various needs, wants and unexpected events to gain more knowledge and respect for adulthood.

Students started out in an orientation session, where they huddled over clipboards and calculators as Barrie McClain, a member of the Purdue Club of Cass County, taught them how to balance a checkbook register.

“We’re giving the students an introduction to the kinds of things they’re going to have to face when they’re responsible for their own family,” McClain said.

After orientation, the eighth-graders headed into a gymnasium, where they filed through tables to determine their marital status, draw how many kids they’d have, pay their taxes and purchase the needs and wants that make up adult life.

Students went through the simulation to pay their student loans, purchase childcare services and buy groceries, insurance, clothing, utilities, housing, medical and dental care and vehicles. At each stop they made, a local representative of the table’s corresponding industry or a Purdue Club of Cass County member was there to guide them as they made their subtractions on their checkbook register.

At the end of the line was a luxuries table, where if they had any money left, students could simulate the purchase of items like cellular phones, mp3 players, video rentals, dining out and even a Caribbean cruise.

Occasionally a whistle would blast across the gym, drawing everyone’s attention to the “Life’s Unexpected” table, where students would draw from a jar of situations like divorce settlements or losing a job. If they were unfortunate enough to draw a circumstance that involved them getting in trouble with the law, the whistle would sound and faculty members would try to hide their smiles as they scolded the student while a member of the Cass County Sheriff’s Department made their way over to issue a reprimand.

Because not all of life’s unexpected moments are bad, sometimes a student would find themselves with a new pet, like Gage Benish, or the winner of a cash prize, like Larissa Villa.

Lauren Szalay, a pediatric therapist for the morning making $59,000 a year with three kids, said her strategy going into the activity was to stray from the more expensive items.

“My children don’t need a lot of electronics,” she said, adding that she felt she could relate to her parents a little more after the activity.

“It shows how expensive things can be,” she said of the experience.

• Reach Mitchell Kirk at or 574-732-5130