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Representatives of HPU’s Department of Social Work take part in Mission Waco Poverty Simulation

BROWNWOOD – November 4, 2022 – Members of Howard Payne University’s social work department recently gained new perspectives through Mission Waco’s Poverty Simulation. During the three-day experience, participants had the opportunity to see the world through a different lens, by walking in the shoes of the impoverished. This is Howard Payne University’s 11th year participating.

According to its website, Mission Waco is a nonprofit organization built around three goals: Empower through relationship-based, holistic programs among the poor and marginalized; equip through the mobilization of middle-class Christians toward “hands-on” involvement; and engage through addressing systematic issues that disempower the poor.

The HPU group was led by Shantel Oplotnik, assistant professor of social work and director of field education. She was joined by her son, Aidan Oplotnik, and two HPU students, Stephanie Russell, a sophomore from San Saba, and Jessica Phariss, a junior from Brownwood.

Before making their way to Waco, Professor Oplotnik prepared the students for what they would encounter through her Social Service and Social Policy in Rural Settings class. This included discussing poverty in other countries where resources are scarce, and even poverty in rural areas like Brownwood where resources aren’t as limited.

“As upcoming social workers, it’s critical to have students get a small glimpse of an environment they will most likely serve in the future,” said Oplotnik.

On the first day, the participants focused on team building and fellowship through introduction and prayer. During the rest of the weekend, they were taught more in depth about widespread poverty, experienced life on the street, and joined Mission Waco’s Church Under the Bridge ministry.

Shantel Oplotnik first participated in the simulation in 2019 as a student at HPU. Since then, she decided to utilize her love for the program by teaching students about the hardships of poverty and providing the opportunity to experience it. Professor Oplotnik described the difficulty of providing comfort and guidance throughout the weekend while allowing the students and her son to use their own ideas and resources.

“I am overly blessed to now teach at my alma mater in the social work department,” she said. “I knew walking in that I wanted to take my students on the Poverty Simulation at Mission Waco. I wanted them to experience a fantastic opportunity in an unconventional way.”

The student participants commented on their individual experiences with the Poverty Simulation, explaining the enlightenment they encountered when faced with poverty.

“After participating in this activity and being a part of the community, I came home with a deeper awareness and understanding,” said Stephanie Russell. “It was a humble reminder to count my many blessings.”

Jessica Phariss commented on her realization of the privileges she didn’t appreciate beforehand.

“Before, I never understood how many privileges I truly had,” she said. “The experience showed me how often I take these privileges for granted, and I want to change that.”

From hearing his mother’s stories and having the opportunity to experience the simulation for himself, Aidan Oplotnik also gained a lot of insight to life’s many blessings.

“This weekend made me much more humble and more aware of people with less money,” he said. “I found the importance of having a good pair of shoes.”

The overall reflection of Mission Waco’s Poverty Simulation was life-changing.

“At HPU, we develop and equip the whole person for service to God and humanity. I think we did just that,” said Professor Oplotnik. “Our experience at Mission Waco helped the students develop and equip themselves as servants of God and bring back their experience to our community.”

For more information about HPU’s Department of Social Work, visit


Cutline: Four from HPU participated in the 2022 Poverty Simulation in Waco. From left to right are Aidan Oplotnik, son of Professor Shantel Oplotnik; Shantel Oplotnik, assistant professor of social work and director of field education at HPU; Stephanie Russell, a sophomore from San Saba; and Jessica Phariss, a junior from Brownwood.