‘We want people to experience what poverty is really like’

The soon-to-be graduate of North Paulding High School is one of the founders of Operation Poverty, a small nonprofit that collects food and clothing for needy people. The organization also has raised almost $13,000 to help stock a local food pantry and rebuild a girls’ dormitory in Uganda. (Its website is www.operationpoverty.com.)

What sets Operation Poverty apart is the almost 200 high schoolers who have spent a “Challenge Week” sleeping outside and surviving on $2 a day — the amount that most of the world lives on. Daily rations consist of four ounces of plain oatmeal, a puny PB&J and a pack of ramen noodles.

“We want people to experience what poverty is really like — that’s our goal,” says Mirolli, 18. “A sophomore girl will now understand that the world is bigger than cell phones and Facebook.”

Earlier this month, Mirolli traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive, along with recipients from other states, a Prudential Spirit of Community award. The award, sponsored by insurer Prudential and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, honors middle and high school students for outstanding service.

We talked with Mirolli about his volunteerism and what it is like to be hungry.

Q: How did you decide to explore the issue of poverty?

A: When I was in the eighth grade, an organization working to help the people of Uganda came to my church and asked, “How far would you go to end poverty?” It took me a long time to answer. Finally my answer was, I would go as far as to live in poverty to see what it is like. It started out with me and three other guys and has escalated from there.

Q: How has the experience changed you?

A: When I get off the exit ramp to the highway and see a guy with the sign, it is no longer this guilty, “Should I give him money?” thought. I know what he is going through. Now I can imagine the headache that he has from being hungry or his sore neck from sleeping on the ground.

Q: Why sleep outside?

A: Sleeping outside, especially when it is raining, is really demoralizing. If you are inside, it is not poverty. It is a sleepover.

Q: So what was it like to be hungry?

A: It is harder than you think. It is really hard to focus on anything. We are still going to school because homeless families still have to function. A lot of the students participating in Challenge Week are athletes. You have limited calories to provide your body with energy.

Q: Has anyone dropped out of “Challenge Week” early?

A: We had a couple of freshman girls — it is just a little too hard. That almost makes me happy. That means that they are actually experiencing what it’s like.

Q: You started out with a focus on Uganda, then expanded locally. Why?

A: It was this realization that 13 percent of the people in Georgia live below the poverty line. Paulding County has one of the higher percentages in the state.

Q: You are heading to UGA in the fall. Do you have plans to keep this going?

A: Next year I am passing the reins on to a senior at our rival school. Through the D.C. trip I was able to connect with other students who want to bring Operation Poverty to their states. I would love to see it go nationwide.

Q: Will you ever look at food the same way?

A: You are at lunch and you see all this food thrown away — that still gets me. I will never look at ramen noodles the same.

The Sunday conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by e-mail at ann.hardie@ymail.com.

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