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Surviving on Two Dollars a Day

April 18, 2012

weServe Two Dollars a Day Challenge
Drexel sophomore Denariel Benn works to secure the structure that housed 12 students for the three-day challenge.
Senior biomedical engineering student Katelynn Montgomery said that during her co-op in Gambia, West Africa, she saw the effects of poverty first-hand.

“We have already experienced that sort of culture shock, which can be so valuable,” Montgomery said of her fellow co-ops in weServe, a student organization originally formed by Drexel biomedical engineering students to enable experiential learning through a first-hand understanding of healthcare needs and disparities at a local and global level.

Montgomery and 11 other weServe members sought to bring awareness to those disparities at Drexel by living off of only $2 per day for three days.

“We serve in communities where the community members are disadvantaged physically or socioeconomically,” said Shirin Karsan, program manager for weServe. “Part of our research is about identifying those communities’ needs, and finding ways to innovate by empowering them. But to understand a community, you need to get a real sense of what they’re going through.”

For the group’s “Two Dollars a Day Challenge,” the group camped out on Lancaster Walk at 33rd Street with nothing but sleeping bags, a tarp, pots and a small stove, since all water they would consume over the three days would need to be boiled for safe consumption.

Their task to build a shelter proved to be more difficult than expected. With only a tarp as a starting point, the team set out to the streets of University City to scrounge for any materials that might help build a sound structure.

“We thought maybe we could make one single rigid body and have the tarp hanging down from it, but that didn’t work too well because the tarp wasn’t long enough,” said Paresh Brahmbhatt, a junior physics major.

“It took two hours to put together, for 12 of us to sleep in there, and a challenge has been the wind,” said Ari Fishbein, a freshman biology major.

For breakfast and lunch, weServe members were on their own to come up with inexpensive, nourishing food.

“We wanted people to go into the stores and not just ask for things, but say, ‘I have 60 cents. What can I get to fill me up?’” said Denariel Benn, a sophomore biomedical engineering major.

At dinnertime, the group ate together.

“We’re trying to have a lot of different learning experiences through this. Abroad, you make one big pot of rice and beans, and everyone shares. So that’s what we did [Monday] night,” Montgomery said, adding that Wednesday night’s dinner would be based on what a family in Philadelphia living off of $2 a day might eat.

“It’s been rewarding just in the fact that we’re standing together for this great cause,” Benn said.

Karsan said that as part of the project, which has participants in colleges across the country to recognize the more than 2.8 billion people in the world who survive on $2 a day, group members were conscious not to take supplies or food that homeless Philadelphians might need.

Throughout the 72 hours, group members asked for non-perishable food and monetary donations—half of which will be donated to the local hunger relief organization Philabundance, with the other half going to the national weServe program.

“I don’t think we have enough radical, student-run initiatives, and I think this is a start to making a presence for those on campus,” Montgomery said. “It’s hard to get people to step outside their comfort zone. But I think a lot of the people who have joined us have come to see the joys of living a simpler life, and more importantly, begin to relate to people who live in this situation every day.”