A Year Later, Are Our Listeners Still In Crisis?

Sept. 7 marks one year since the start of events that led to the financial crisis. Host Liane Hansen revisits three listeners whose economic stories were featured on Weekend Edition over the past year to see how they're faring. Liane speaks with small-business owner Nancy Wallace of Atlanta; Melissa Parker of Sacramento, Calif., who was having problems paying her adjustable-rate mortgage, and Donna Giannola of Sterling, Colo., who was struggling to find steady employment.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

One year ago, a series of events sparked a nationwide economic meltdown that has left millions unemployed or struggling to get by. In the months that followed, we asked several of our listeners to share their personal stories of financial struggle. Today we're checking in with three of those listeners, beginning with Nancy Wallace of Atlanta, Georgia.

After Nancy spoke with us last year, she started her own landscape and garden design business. And while so many other small business owners were having trouble getting access to credit, Nancy says she was able to get a bank loan.

Ms. NANCY WALLACE (Founder, Wallace Gardens): In January, I went to an email marketing class and it was sponsored by a bank. And the woman who was with the bank told us that the bank that she was with had not made mistakes in the mortgage industry like so many other banks, and their bank, unlike others, had money to lend to small businesses. And everybody laughed - a little bit of black humor there. And because of my situation, I was particularly interested because I knew I would probably need to go see a bank about getting some money - and I did.

HANSEN: And they gave it to you.

Ms. WALLACE: They did. The woman that I met with told me that she would work with me and she was very honest with me, as I was with her, about the fact that I was starting over completely with virtually nothing in my pockets, no vehicle and nothing but a decent credit score and a client base.

HANSEN: So, what was the money for?

Ms. WALLACE: Well, I needed a vehicle. I had to leave behind the van with the other business, so I needed a vehicle almost immediately. This was in February and my spring planting season was ready to go in March, and my van is the bloodline to my business. So, I was able to acquire a loan with the bank and some liability insurance and auto insurance at extremely reasonable rates. And the banker did virtually everything that she said that she could do for me, much to my astonishment.

HANSEN: Did your family help out?

Ms. WALLACE: Absolutely. My brother loaned me a few thousand dollars to tide me over until I could get started in March. And that was an enormous help. He was more than happy to do so. He's been very supportive - in fact, my whole family has been very supportive.

Because at the time that I was starting this new business, I had a great number of concerns - one was losing my house and having to start over someplace else on the planet for that matter. But I was able to stay in my home, get my kid back in college this fall and it's all come together as a result of a great network of support between family, banks and public support systems.

HANSEN: Overall, how would you characterize your financial picture now as compared to a year ago?

Ms. WALLACE: For me personally in my new business, I am guardedly optimistic.

HANSEN: Is your business showing a profit yet?

Ms. WALLACE: Actually, it is - remarkably it is, I'm pleased to say.

HANSEN: Given the fact that you've emerged from near-financial ruin and you've got this business going now, what's your biggest fear?

Ms. WALLACE: That I won't be able to maintain the momentum and the energy required to sustain the productivity. I worry that I won't be able to keep up.

HANSEN: That was Nancy Wallace of Atlanta, Georgia.

Melissa Parker told us last year that she and her husband weren't able to keep up with their mortgage payments. But since then, Melissa says their mortgage lender has granted a five-year interest rate freeze and she found a second job. Last year, Melissa said she and her husband sometimes lacked money for food.

Ms. MELISSA PARKER: Beans, rice and multivitamins get us through. Actually, one of my very good friends gave us gift cards to a local grocery store. And so we're going to go stock up on meat and - which would be nice - and hopefully stock our pantry full of non-perishables.

HANSEN: Had the contents of your pantry changed at all?

Ms. PARKER: They have, fortunately. Through budgeting and resourcefulness, we're able to eat more than just beans and rice now. And we also started our own vegetable garden, which has been great. We love the fresh vegetables and it also gives us an outlet to kind of work off some of the stress.

HANSEN: You're in your late 20s, how do you think this experience, given that it happened so early in your adult life, has changed your outlook?

Ms. PARKER: Wow. That's a really good question. Well, I'm thankful, actually, that I learned such a hard lesson younger. And it has taught me to really look ahead how my decisions now are going to affect me 5, 10, 15 years out. I don't think that we were really looking at that when we got caught up in the excitement of buying our house.

HANSEN: Has this put a strain on your marriage?

Ms. PARKER: You know, I think more than anything it's actually made us stronger. Because as a young couple, you know, we were kind of finding our way in our relationship and I think we've both gotten stronger for each other and grown closer through the experience.

HANSEN: Let me ask you a broad question regarding the economy: What direction do you think the country is heading?

Ms. PARKER: I'm hoping that we have hit rock bottom so that we can start to slowly rebuild. But honestly, I don't personally see it in my everyday life that we're going to start rebuilding anytime soon.

HANSEN: That was Melissa Parker of Sacramento, California.

Like Melissa, Donna Giannola was in a financial squeeze when we checked in with her last year. Donna, who lives in Sterling, Colorado, now teaches graphic design to college students, but she juggled as many as four jobs before she landed that full-time position. She says the stress of it all took a physical toll.

Ms. DONNA GIANNOLA (Northeastern Junior College): I think that the stress, I definitely started losing hair. Being sleep deprived is kind of interesting, especially, like, if you're teaching in the morning and then you're working a night job.

I remember over Christmas I got hired at Target to work on the sales floor staff. And they would start us at six o'clock and we would work till midnight. And then you have to clean the store and reorganize all the products and stock product until, like, sometimes it's an extra hour. So, they don't let you out until, you know, 1:00 a.m.

And I just remember, Liane, feeling a couple of times like I was going to fall over, especially when I would get to school in the morning and you start, like, at 7:20, if it's elementary school. And probably about 10 in the morning was really difficult to stay on my feet. And then, like, two o'clock in the afternoon, it got to be really difficult staying on my feet.

HANSEN: Were you able to collect unemployment insurance?

Ms. GIANNOLA: I did. You know, I did at first collect unemployment insurance. I decided - and this was my personal decision 'cause of how I saw it - I decided I could make more money off of unemployment. And that's just because I'm the kind of person that has a lot of different skills. And unemployment was kind of depressing because you sit home a lot.

I have a friend who's getting very, very depressed, and she's on unemployment and I finally convinced her to substitute teach. And her first day in class, I can already hear her voice, she sounds so much better. And one of the teachers emailed her and said, thank you so much for doing this, for taking my class. And I think being useful, actually hands-on and mentally being engaged, is much more positive than sitting there collecting a check from someone, you know?

HANSEN: Last year, you told us you were afraid you were going to lose your home. Can you pay your mortgage now?

Ms. GIANNOLA: Well, yes. I made it through all that, you know, four jobs, paying the mortgage - three jobs - paying the mortgage. But what happened is that I got a full-time teaching job because of all my teaching experience, you know, and meeting people and stuff. So, now I had to move to Sterling. I was living in Frederick - my home is in Frederick, Colorado - and I had to move to Sterling, Colorado because I work at the college full time, as full-time faculty, and I have an office there. So I had to rent a house.

So, now I'm in the situation, Liane, where I'm having to cover my mortgage payments until my house either rents or I can sell it. And I'm also having to cover my rental payments on my small house.

HANSEN: Let me ask you a broad question: What direction do you think the country's heading with regard to the economy?

Ms. GIANNOLA: I'm so concerned. It's very slow and it's almost too slow. But all I hear from all of my friends who are middle America people is that they don't have jobs and they're still struggling. I have friends that are out of work and struggling financially. And so what I hear on the radio is there's hope that things are better and yet what I see is things that are not a lot better.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: That was Donna Giannola. She teaches at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. She joins us from member station KUNC in Greeley, Colorado. We also heard from Nancy Wallace, garden designer and founder of Wallace Gardens. She spoke with us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. And Melissa Parker of Sacramento, California joined us by phone from her office.

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