[INTERVIEW] Can You Imagine Living On $1 A Day? 4 Friends Did. For 56 Days

Photo: Sean Leonard, Zach Ingrasci, Chris Temple and Ryan Christoffersen on the craziest journey of their lives. (Facebook)

In the United States, the official guidelines define poverty as an individual income below $11,170 a year. That’s an average of $30.60 or less per person, each day — for food, housing, medical costs, education, clothing, the works. Add a spouse and kids and that daily rate dwindles significantly. Within this range, a person’s health and livelihood are at risk. Within this range, life is considered unmanageable, often dangerous. Now get this: Across the planet, more than one billion people are surviving on less than $1 a day. 

In 2010, four college students, Zach Ingrasci, Chris Temple, Sean Leonard and Ryan Christoffersen found the dollar-a-day figure so hard to imagine that they chose live it for themselves. Foregoing a laid-back summer vacation, they packed the bare minimum and headed to Guatemala for what proved to be a life-changing 56-day challenge. During that small window, they experienced hunger and malnutrition, increased vulnerability to disease and parasites, consequences of severe weather and physically grueling survival demands. They witnessed the effect of poverty on their temporary community — the dramatically reduced odds of a formal eduction, the tough choices on how to work and spend. Moreover, they met extraordinary people whose lives and stories rocked their world.

Photo: Chris and Zach living on $1 a day in Guatemala. True story. (Facebook)

Zach, Chris and Sean returned home determined to bring those stories to light. They recruited friend Hannah Gregg to help run the show. The result? Living on One — a film, an actionable campaign, road-trip tour, a promise. The team invites you to vicariously live on a dollar a day via the trailer and their interview below. Be sure to click on the Action items to find out how you can make a difference — even for one person.

+Watch “Living On One” trailer.

ACT: From the looks of it, your 8 week experiment was much more than a challenge in survival. Did the relationships you formed with local Guatemalans change your project’s original course?

Team LoO (collectively): At first, we were in 100 percent survival mode. We couldn’t start a fire because of rain, our dirt floor was crawling with fleas, and we only had enough money to feed four always-hungry guys one small bowl of rice and beans a day. Zach constantly doodled pictures of food in his journal. We were miserable. It was our first glimpse at how difficult it is to live at that level of poverty. We were barely getting by.

We soon realized that our own struggles were the daily reality for our neighbors. We became very close friends with them and started learning their stories. They talked about having to choose between keeping their kids in school or putting food on the table. Our own struggles paled in comparison. Yet faced with such unbelievably hard choices, our neighbors were the most resilient and generous people we had ever met. They inspired us to create this film and ask our generation to confront extreme poverty together. We wanted to give them a voice.

Photo: How cute is Jose? He’s one of the friends that the boys made in Guatemala. (Facebook)

ACT: Did your relationships with each other change as a result of sharing this experience?

LoO: As each day passed we became hungrier and our budget got tighter. Every decision had bigger and bigger consequences. We almost didn’t make it past the first week because of a chicken…Chris and Zach nearly broke into a fist fight because Chris wanted to buy a chicken and Zach thought it was too risky. What if the chicken didn’t lay eggs? We literally couldn’t afford to make the wrong decision. The chicken scenario showed us just how stressful every financial decision is at that level.

Overall, the experience forced us to come together and support one another. When you don’t have financial safety nets you have to rely on your friends and family to help you through the hard times.

And Chris is STILL mad that he never got the chicken.

ACT: In your observations, what are the root causes of poverty in Guatemala? How can/will this change?

LoO: There was not one root cause of the poverty in our community. It is an intensely complex issue. Our time in Guatemala taught us one really important thing: Small changes can have big impacts in the lives of the extreme poor.

It doesn’t seem like much, but moving from $1 to $2 a day can bring a family from destitution to a place where they can begin investing in education or a business. While it won’t solve all their problems, even simple access to a bank account or a small loan provides a huge opportunity for them to improve their lives. This is why we put so much effort into identifying ways for our generation to get involved with microfinance.

ACT: What luxury/gadget/thing did you find yourselves missing most? Which ones were you surprised not to miss at all?

LoO: To really answer your question…we dreamt about milk shakes and cheeseburgers nearly every night.

Every day we struggled to think, to film interviews and walk to work in the fields because our bodies didn’t have the energy and nutrition they needed. One morning, Chris woke up covered in flea bites and couldn’t even get out bed because of extreme stomach pain from parasites. And our experiences were just a glimpse of the hardships that so many of our neighbors dealt with day in and day out.

The rural village in Guatemala felt like a world apart from our lives here in the US. It wasn’t TV or cell phones that we missed the most; it was food and good health.

ACT: Not everyone can live on $1 a day so what are other ways people take action with Living on One?

LoO: We don’t ask anyone to go live on $1 a day. We do ask that everyone join us in raising awareness to increase understanding about the reality of extreme poverty. Our generation can do this simply by connecting with one another and sharing this story on Facebook and Twitter.

On our website, you can give a microfinance loan through our partner organization, Whole Planet Foundation. A small monetary contribution can open the door to huge opportunities for our friends in Guatemala and the one billion others living in extreme poverty.

Our website also offers ways to get more involved in microfinance by taking online classes, connecting with student microfinance clubs, and finding jobs and internships. So far young people from 170 universities and 50 countries have joined our Student Microfinance Network to learn more about sustainable development and help make a difference.

Photo: Elon University gets involved with the campaign! (Facebook)

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