Reality Town offers life lessons for teens |

Reality Town offers life lessons for teens

Greg Marshall, Of the Record staff

Juliann Marrott is bummed.

The eighth grader at Treasure Mountain International has fictitious bills piling up. She has to pay dental and health insurance. Mortgage and car payments, groceries and home improvements loom over her as they do for adults.

Juliann’s case isn’t unique in Reality Town, a circuit of booths in Treasure Mountain’s gymnasium set up Thursday to represent banks, car dealerships, pet and grocery stores. Now a tradition, the program is a social studies experiment designed to give kids a taste of adulthood, and those not-so-thrilling reminders of adulthood sent through the mail: invoices.

Counselors, teachers and volunteers arm more than 300 eighth graders with imitation checkbooks and ledgers. The students are given a budget, based on third-quarter grades, to pay for essentials such as housing and food with imaginary money.

"I think I take everything for granted," sighed Kourtney Nehring, Juliann’s friend, as she tired of the game. "Now I’m learning what it takes to live with more than the bare necessities."

Juliann’s approach was decidedly less philosophical. "Life sucks," she moaned, and both girls agreed henceforth to be thrifty and bear as few children as possible. (Kids are an added expense in the exercise and, just as in life, not always carefully planned.)

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The only booth that wasn’t crowded with teenagers was the "Financial Counseling" table, where Kristen Brown, a parent and volunteer, sat with her hands folded, ready to help. Even the neighboring booth, a mock recruitment center for the military, received more customers. "The kids don’t come to me until they realize the difficulties of their financial burdens," Brown said. She urges kids to weigh what they want versus what they need. She hopes lessons learned in the gym will translate into careful budgeting when it comes to spending greenbacks in real life.

Too often, elaborate plans get foiled and the convertibles that seemed like must-haves early in the game leave kids scratching their heads minutes later, trying to punch out a doable solution on one of Brown’s calculators. "Hence the reality portion of Reality Town," she continued.

Jane Parker, a former counselor at Ecker Hill Elementary School, started the program nearly 10 years ago and has since taken it to schools across the state and country. Today, the program attracts about 90 volunteers to Treasure Mountain from the Parent-Teacher-Student Organization, Rotary Club and other service organizations.

The downturn has imbued the project, now about five years old at Treasure Mountain, with more real-world applications, and an added sense of urgency, said TMIS counselor Mary Klismith. This years, instructors used the venue to teach about the ins and outs of the economy, everything from dividends to writing checks. Klismith swept into classrooms with tips about job applications and resumes.

She admitted it’s a tough job market for teens, but encouraged students to pursue unpaid work as interns or to rack up hours of community service this summer to bolster college resumes. And it’s not coincidence Reality Town is held at the end of eighth grade, just a few months away from entering high school when grades are etched onto permanent transcripts.

Reality Town wasn’t all gloom. Tyler Mac’s grades earned him plenty of money and a job as an architect, the trade he hopes to study in real life. Other students, such as Mathieu Montecot, had fun pretending to be private investigators, actresses and singers, even if the pretend jobs didn’t garner heaps of cash. "Many of the jobs the kids have are things they actually want to do," explained volunteer Chris Ioannides, whose own daughter, Katerina, was moonlighting as an attorney.

Katerina raised eyebrows at the "Transportation" booth when she opted for a bus pass instead of a fancy car. She ended the game with plenty of money left over.