Immersive Environment Tells Poverty’s True Story
By Mel McGowan
This December, the world will have the opportunity to understand poverty in a whole new light.
When Children’s Hunger Fund (CHF) first told me about their idea for a walk-through attraction about poverty, I knew it would be a project like no other.
Born in the mind of CHF president and founder Dave Phillips years earlier, the project had already taken shape to some degree. He and his team had brought the idea to friends within Walt Disney Imagineering for help conceptualizing the project.
Then, they brought those ideas to my team to create the well-articulated concept drawings to help secure financial support for the project. It was imperative to CHF that the sets for the exhibit be realistic, immersive environments that tell the true story of international poverty in new and compelling ways. We ultimately created the attraction’s layout and schematic designs.
We’ve seen some of the project under construction, and when it opens in Los Angeles, California, in December, Poverty Encounter will be a moving and compelling experience that families will never forget.
A Passion for the Gospel and the Church
I was first amazed by the idea of Poverty Encounter, not just by the radical concept of the exhibit, but by CHF’s heart for their mission: supporting the work of local churches around the globe. CHF is passionate about supporting the local church, whether it’s in the developing world or here at home.
And Poverty Encounter makes that message clear. The ultimate goal of Poverty Encounter is to ignite hope in the redemptive power of the gospel proclaimed by local churches in communities worldwide.
The exhibit sheds light on the opportunities for evangelism, salvation, and hope that local churches create when they provide food and essential resources to their communities. It’s a front-row seat to what’s possible when the church takes a stand against suffering and starvation.
Immersive and Realistic
Poverty Encounter is a walk-through attraction that tells real-life stories of suffering and believably portrays the realities of impoverished communities. Visitors will come face-to-face with the gut-wrenching truth of the conditions millions of people around the world live in each day.
“God put the concept for Poverty Encounter in my heart about 12 years ago, so to be opening this December is truly the result of answered prayer,” Phillips said.
The exhibit re-creates realistic scenes—including the sights and sounds—from places like brickyards in Asia, garbage-dump villages in Central America, and displaced-people settlements in areas struck by natural disaster.
I can imagine what it will be like to walk with my own children into the home of a family that has lived in a landfill for generations, surviving off the refuse of others. That experience will cement the needs of others in their minds forever, compelling them to hold onto a worldview that values the poor and acts for the underserved.
“We have been bringing in focus groups as part of the design process for several months now,” Phillips said. “Based on their feedback, the information presented is proving to have an impact on both our adult and child visitors.”
Perhaps my favorite part of the exhibit is how it ends. CHF is using the exhibit to provide actionable solutions that visitors can take part in immediately. Not only will visitors learn how CHF helps feed the hungry, they’ll have an immediate opportunity to work in the CHF warehouse and fill boxes of food that will be shipped to needy families.
Bringing the Story Closer
It’s not possible to take all of CHF’s U.S. volunteers and donors (more than 25,000 annually) to personally see their international operations. Poverty Encounter gives them a chance to witness these circumstances in ways that photographs and video can’t express. For its visitors, the exhibit is meant to inspire deep empathy and a renewed passion for serving hungry children.
“Our goal is to share the stories of real children and help visitors understand not only the pain and the hardships, but also the joy that children living in these conditions can have,” Phillips said. “We aim to shift their perspective about what it means to care for others around the globe.”
“Whether living in a garbage dump in Guatemala or a home here in the U.S., kids are kids . . . they all smile, they all laugh, they all have dreams.”
A Network of Mercy
Poverty Encounter will also shed light on and raise support for CHF’s distribution model. CHF’s operations are built around the idea that churches in underserved communities often need support from people who have the resources to provide it. This creates opportunities for everyone to get involved in the effort.
Local churches, trained for gospel-centered mercy ministry and relational evangelism, then distribute the food through home delivery. As relationships with families develop, the church comes alongside those who are in need in their community.
A SoCal Destination
CHF hopes Poverty Encounter will attract families, school groups, and travelers from all over the country. When visiting Southern California attractions, families will also want to include a visit to learn about the poor and act on their behalf.
Americans often don’t understand the situations in which local churches around the world find themselves. Poverty Encounter is a fresh way to help each of us understand their challenges and do something about it.
“Not everyone can take an international trip to witness poverty with their own eyes,” said Phillips, “so we aim to bring their stories to you.”
To learn more about CHF and Poverty Encounter, and to sign up for notifications when tours are available, go to www.childrenshungerfund.org/povertyencounter.
Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.