Training, Benefits Aim To Save Sinking Communities

The first of a two-part series

People waiting in line for food in Wilmington, Ohio i i

hide captionMore than 1,400 people waited in line for a box of groceries in Wilmington, Ohio, where a DHL facility has closed.

Pam Fessler/NPR
People waiting in line for food in Wilmington, Ohio

More than 1,400 people waited in line for a box of groceries in Wilmington, Ohio, where a DHL facility has closed.

Pam Fessler/NPR

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Loading boxes of food i i

hide captionSemitrailers brought boxes of groceries from the international charity Feed The Children. More than 10,000 people are expected to lose their jobs in the town and surrounding area.

Pam Fessler/NPR
Loading boxes of food

Semitrailers brought boxes of groceries from the international charity Feed The Children. More than 10,000 people are expected to lose their jobs in the town and surrounding area.

Pam Fessler/NPR

Communities across America are feeling the devastating impact of economic decline, but few are feeling it more than the small city of Wilmington, in southwest Ohio. A decision by DHL to end its domestic air freight business there has left thousands unemployed. Now, the community is trying desperately to figure out what's next and how to hold together a frayed social safety net.

It was still dark and cold when 11 semitrailers filled with food rolled into downtown Wilmington recently. It was a lot like those caravans that arrive in the wake of a natural disaster. People here say they are in the middle of a disaster — a kind of economic Hurricane Katrina.

That's why more than 1,400 people were willing to stand in the brutal cold — some for more than an hour — for a box of free groceries and personal supplies like shampoo and dental floss. It came from the international charity Feed the Children. People said it felt a little like they were in the Third World.

Some of those waiting in line, outside the local soup kitchen, had clearly been here before. But for most, it was a first.

"I've worked ever since I was 15 years old," said Patsy Young, who lost her job in December, after 19 years as a forklift operator for ABX Air, which helped run the DHL air park. "I've never been without a job, so this is kind of like totally new for me."

That's why these layoffs have been so devastating. For decades, the air park provided steady work for this largely rural community. People had nice homes and good health insurance. But now, about 10,000 are expected to lose their jobs. One in 3 Wilmington residents could be affected, but Young says it doesn't help that she's got lots of company.

"It's kind of like going down on the Titanic," she says. "You know you're not alone, but it doesn't make it any better."

Inside, Mary Alice Kendall thanks Feed the Children founder Larry Jones for his help. She says she used to send his charity $50 each month, but that was before her husband stopped working at ABX. Kendall says she's thrilled that so many neighbors are pitching in to hand out food, but that it's hard to be on the receiving end — she says she's never had to ask for this kind of help.

Finding A Sympathetic Ear

People here are trying to keep things together the best they can. At the United Methodist Church downtown, a volunteer helps the Kendalls file their tax return. It's part of the Ohio Benefit Bank, a one-stop shop for benefits such as health care, food stamps and energy assistance. Pastor Dean Feldmeyer, who helps run the center, says almost $2 billion in tax credits and benefits go unclaimed each year in the state.

"The poor simply don't know how to get them," Feldmeyer says. "Or they know how to get them, but they're so intimidated by the process, that they just can't bring themselves to go through the humiliation that's required to stand in line and deal with bureaucracy and all that."

So, here, they get a sympathetic ear. One of the three volunteers lost his job in December. Another, Kim Hilderbrant, says she and her fiance recently had to shut down his music store because business was so bad. She says some of their customers cried.

"They couldn't believe that we were closing, and wondering why," Hilderbrant says. "The 'why' is look around. You don't have money for food, you don't have money for your mortgages, you don't have money for your rent."

She wants to move, but can't — there's nobody to buy her house. Some friends and neighbors have lost their homes.

"We're losing way more than just a big company — we're losing our family," she says.

Tough Times, But Some Optimism

Hilderbrant says that maybe some of that stimulus money from Washington will help, but people here are realists. Ohio is set to get $8.2 billion in stimulus funds, but there are already proposals to spend six times that amount.

"I don't know if we'll get anything from the stimulus package," says Randy Riley a commissioner in Clinton County, where Wilmington is located. "There's so many fuzzy areas in that stimulus package and so much muddy water, it's hard to imagine how that's going to settle out."

So the region has been trying to attract new businesses on its own. It's put out requests for proposals on how to redevelop the air park, but there's nothing firm so far. Still, like many here, Riley is optimistic that this hard-working community will attract employers.

"I don't see that we have a negative or a gloomy future," Riley says. "In fact, I've told several people, I think five years from now, we will be just as well off if not better than we were five or 10 years ago."

The challenge is getting there. Like local governments across the country, Clinton County faces a tight budget because of declining revenues. The schools are laying off teachers, and the county has a hiring freeze, including for agencies that have to deal with growing demands.

The Job and Family Services office has almost twice as many clients as it did in better times, but director John Hosler says he can't hire new caseworkers and has two unfilled positions.

"It's a very difficult situation, because these caseworkers are the people that admit the folks into the safety net — the food stamps, the medical cards, whatever," Hosler says.

He says it now takes a lot longer to get aid to those who need it. The stimulus package should help. Food stamp and unemployment benefits are due to go up, and there's also money to help states administer such programs. But Hosler says that, unfortunately, things here are about to get even worse. Many of the unemployed have severance packages that are set to run out soon.

"I think the grim reality of not having any money, not having any income, not having any chance of being called back to work really hasn't set in yet," he says.

For now, many of the laid-off workers are taking advantage of free classes offered at transition centers run by the county, DHL and ABX. They're learning things like resume writing and how to create an Excel spreadsheet. Mary Ellen Diersing of ABX says the world has changed a lot since most of these workers last looked for jobs.

"We start off with introduction to computers. We have employees that have been displaced, laid off, that don't even know what a mouse is," Diersing says.

The workers say they appreciate the help, although they do wonder where it will lead. In the center of the warehouse where the classes are held is a reminder of just how much things have changed: It's a large trailer that, until last summer, ABX used in surrounding counties to recruit workers, because jobs were so plentiful. Now, it's used as a classroom, to teach the unemployed how to apply for jobs online — jobs that for the most part don't exist.

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