Reaching out after job disaster

Faith-based groups are using their expertise in disaster response to help those suffering from a different kind of disaster job loss.

BY BOYCE BOWDEN | MARIETTA, Okla. | February 19, 2004

"Hundreds of our people were in trouble, not just financially, but emotionally and spiritually."

—Tony Caro

Faith-based groups are using their expertise in disaster response to help those suffering from a different kind of disaster job loss. From Oklahoma to Iowa to North Carolina, interfaith groups are reaching out to help families affected by recent plant closings and layoffs.

In Marietta an Oklahoma town some 15 miles from the Texas border that's home to 2,500 people churches are reaching out to people who never thought they'd lose their jobs.

On Jan. 12, a cold and windy Monday morning, employees arrived for work at Bake-Line, a local cookie factory in Marietta, and they found the gate to the plant locked. A small sign attached to the gate read: "Effective immediately Bake-Line group has suspended operations."

That same day, Bake-Line closed six other plants across the country and the company headquarters near Chicago. The next day Bake-Line filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.

Bake-Line had employed 400 people at the Marietta plant. Located in the county seat town for 50 years, the cookie factory was the largest employer in Love County.

That same month, another 65 workers in Marietta had lost their jobs when Siemans Demantic a manufacturer of conveyors closed.

Before the two plants closed, unemployment in Love County had been 3.7%. After the shutdowns, it climbed to 13.6%. Officials estimate that one out of eight Love County residents are still feeling the impact as the loss of income continues to ripple through the area.

The plight of people like these troubled Tony Caro pastor of the United Methodist churches in Marietta and nearby Thackerville. On Thursday morning following the plant shutdown on Monday, Caro went to the weekly meeting of a prayer group.

He found that the other members of the group Paul Riley, a member of First Baptist, and Judge Charley Roberts, a member of First United Methodist Church were also troubled.

"Hundreds of our people were in trouble, not just financially, but emotionally and spiritually," says Caro. "We were concerned about them. But we knew that just being concerned about them wasn't going to help. We needed to let God work through us to find some practical ways to help the unemployed and their families recover and move ahead."

These pastors, along with the Love County Ministerial Alliancen and the mission team of Mercy Health/Love County Hospital and Clinic in Marietta, worked together to host a meal and a job fair that has bloomed into a recovery campaign called "Operation Back to Work Love County!"

Two weeks to the day after the Bake-Line locked its gates, some 400 came to the Love County Fair building for the meal. The Job Fair, held in the Community Room at the Dollar Tree Distribution Center in Marietta, was held the same day. Thirty-one firms from southern Oklahoma and northern Texas interviewed and passed out applications for jobs and related assistance. A total of 294 displaced workers signed the registry, according to Richard Barker, hospital administrator.

Some received job offers on the spot and dozens of others accepted invitations to follow-up interviews. Still others applied for job training opportunities with Big 5 Community Services, Southern Oklahoma Technology Center and Workforce Oklahoma.

Also present at the job fair were representatives of social service agencies, credit counselors, mental health specialists, and others to help displaced employees with their needs.

The churches are now joining with the hospital in an effort to provide emergency care for persons who are still unemployed, many without benefits.

Volunteers-including many from churches-are making phone calls to persons who registered at the job fair to find out how they are fairing in their job search and with their financial, family, and personal needs. The telephone surveyors are directing workers to appropriate social and non-profit agencies.

Meanwhile in Postville, Iowa, another 400 people have been feeling a kindred financial and emotional strain in the wake of a fire that destroyed the Iowa Turkey Products plant in town. Shortly before Christmas, plant employees many of them Hispanic and Ukrainian immigrants were out of a job.

An interfaith effort supported by Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics and Orthodox Jews has been launched to establish a food bank and to try to meet emergency needs for utilities, medications and transportation. Last week Presbyterian Disaster Assistance announced it was sending a grant to the Community Presbyterian Church in Postville to support these efforts.

The owners of Iowa Turkey Products are still deciding whether to rebuilt the plant in Postville or elsewhere. Even if the owners decide to rebuild in Postville, many employees are worried about interim employment. And other local businesses in Postville are feeling ongoing "ripple" effects of the economic blow. Town officials are concerned that residents will leave town or will go back to their home countries in search of employment.

Faith-based groups including Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Church World Service and others also worked together last summer in Kannapolis, N.C., after a Pillowtex plant closing left more than 5,00 people jobless.

The closing made the town of Kannapolis a community of some 39,000 people and birthplace of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt home to the biggest single job loss at a U.S. textile plant ever.

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