BLOOMINGTON — One person picked up discarded beans while another picked the “strings” of a guitar made of cardboard.
A third carried a “baby” under a blanket. Others played “soccer” with a makeshift ball of crumpled paper, plastic bags and rubber bands.
Later, they shared food in a shelter made of wood, cardboard, a plastic tarp and duct tape.
All are students at Illinois Wesleyan University. But for about an hour Wednesday, they were living the life of street children: begging; doing odd jobs; and surviving the elements.
The “shantytown” on the steps of Ames Library was part of an open house at the library involving a cluster of liberal arts courses on the theme of “unraveling inequality.”
Members of professor Rebecca Gearhart's anthropology/environmental studies course, “People and Cultures of East Africa,” portrayed street kids based on profiles of actual children whose stories they researched.
They included a 12-year-old girl who turns to prostitution to earn enough money to buy food, a 10-year-old boy who scavenges garbage and paper with his younger brothers while sniffing glue to stave off hunger pains, and a 13-year-old girl who carries her 2-year-old brother, passing him off as her son, to gain more sympathy and more contributions.
Even Gearhart took on another persona as "Mama Rabia," who sells craft items she makes while looking out for the children.
The students recognized that some research and an hour of role-playing outside on a chilly day isn't the same as actually living on the street.
“We're still just in front of our big expensive library,” said Alyssa Berry, a freshman from Wheaton majoring in nursing.
“I'll still be able to go to my home,” agreed freshman Jenia Head, a musical theater major from Detroit, as wind whipped at the shanty's tarp roof. “But being here … really gives a face to this for me.”
Students also got a taste of what it's like to be ignored as they tried to get handouts from people coming in and out of the library.
Although the shanty and children depicted by the students were patterned after real people and situations in Nairobi, Kenya, Gearhart said they were meant to symbolize street children worldwide — not just in developing countries but also in the United States.
Sophomore Nick Miller, an environmental studies major from Peru, said he was surprised by the scope of the problem.
“It's a fixable problem,” Miller said. “It shouldn't be as prevalent as it is.”
About 50 students signed up for one-hour time slots from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the shanty that was put together in about 45 minutes Wednesday morning.
“Hopefully it inspires other students to get involved and help more,” Berry said.