'Life and Livelihood'
Unemployed seniors and others find support from All Saints' program
By Carolyn Neuhausen 04/12/2012
When “Theresa” was laid off from her human resources job in early 2011, she had no idea she would remain unemployed for almost a year or that she would have to deplete her retirement savings to pay for her family’s home mortgage. She also didn’t know how emotionally draining it would be to search for work or how daunting the idea of finding a job would be over the age of 50. “The journey [of searching for work] was fraught with great frustration, fear, anger and despair,” she says.
But in the summer of 2011, feeling overwhelmed by her situation, Theresa, who asked that her real name be withheld to protect her identity, found fellowship and understanding in a support group called Life and Livelihood, a service offered through Pasadena’s All Saints Church for the unemployed and underemployed.
For her, having a place where she could be with people who were living through the same difficulties made all the difference.
“Nobody knows the unemployment journey like the fellow unemployed. It is definitely a ‘you have to walk in my shoes to have any idea of what it is like’ [kind of thing],” Theresa says. “My Life and Livelihood family were my lifeline in a very dark period of my life. Their natural connection, their empathy and mostly their care and concern gave bright light and hope to me.”
Since March, All Saints’ Life and Livelihood support group has helped people like Theresa navigate life after a loss of economic livelihood. What started out as a six-week pilot project has continued to draw a steady attendance, and members within the church have pooled economic and vocational resources to keep the group together and even expand the services it offers locals.
For Lorynne Young, laid off in 2009 from her job as a communications director, the emotional support she gets through the group has kept her going. Today Young, who is over age 55, leads Monday night Life and Livelihood groups, and although she has steadily volunteered at the Huntington Rose and Herb Gardens, she continues to apply for professional work.
It hasn’t been easy. The job market, according to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Public Policy Institute, is particularly brutal toward people Young’s age. US Bureau of Labor Statistics figures published in June show the “average duration of unemployment for older job seekers remained above one year,” with older job seekers unemployed an average of 52. 4 weeks in June 2011, versus 35.6 weeks for the younger unemployed.
For older people out of work, groups like Life and Livelihood provide a valuable lifeline of support. “For me, it has been a really valuable place of emotional support to be able to come there every week and share hopes with people in the same situation,” Young says of the group. “It really impressed me that they were trying to do something tangible for people who are unemployed; it’s comforting to be a part of the group, part of a church that would keep me from being homeless.”
The idea behind Life and Livelihood began when All Saints’ Director of Stewardship, Sharalyn Hamilton, reached out to parishioners for church pledges but kept hearing stories of hardship among the very people she was soliciting.
“We were getting feedback from people who had been furloughed, lost their jobs had their salary cut back, and [felt] shame in losing a job,” Hamilton recalls. “We were becoming aware of how many people were suffering in their lives by loss of job. People were feeling bad about coming to church, because they had lost their job and could not pledge.”
Pondering a way to address these growing concerns, All Saints took a cue from parishioner Peter Laarman, who’d led a support group for the unemployed at his old church in Manhattan in the early 1990s. He created a six-week curriculum for the support groups, where participants would talk about the economic headlines of the week, discuss their individual current emotional state and then read a pastoral poem or prayer.
Although Life and Livelihood is relatively new, the services it provides are filling a definite need. When the support group started last year, California’s unemployment rate stood at 12 percent, and though the economy has seen a recent and slow improvement over the last year, the reality of unemployment remains bleak for the 2 million Californians still out of work.
The most recent national numbers as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a current unemployment rate of 10.9 percent as of this January. An estimated 2.1 million Americans over age 55 are currently unemployed, according to 2011 bureau figures.
The published unemployment numbers, however, only tell part of the story, because that rate does not take into account people who have run out of unemployment insurance or those who are underemployed or only working part time.
Although the Life and Livelihood groups were set up as a support system for people dealing with loss of employment, conversations on a wide variety of topics abound; people discuss work-life balance, the difficulties in searching for work, social justice and workers’ rights, ageism and the desire to change vocations.
Soon after the sessions met and moved well past the initial six-week benchmark, All Saints members began to feel the groups were beyond the purview of the Office of Stewardship, which focuses mainly on fundraising and pledging. So officials decided Life and Livelihood should be operated under the Office of Creative Connections, which has helped start several local nonprofits, including Day One, a local substance abuse prevention nonprofit, Young and Healthy, a nonprofit that provides access to health care for uninsured and underinsured children, and New Vision Partners, an interfaith, multicultural collaboration focused on justice and peace through education, according to Juliana Serrano, director of All Saints’ Office of Creative Connections.
“This became less about stewardship and pledges to the church and more about connecting people to resources and getting people to create solutions to a particular problem…it made sense to transition that over to my office,” Serrano explains.
In December, a parishioner who believed in Life and Livelihood’s efforts granted a private donation to hire a human resources expert and a part-time temporary program coordinator to help make connections between parishioners and group members, according to Hamilton.
In addition to the emotional and spiritual support the group offers its members, there is a practical element to it — both Hamilton and Serrano regularly collect postings about job openings or job training services and pass them on to Life and Livelihood members. Through those contacts, and relationships between the coordinators and other All Saints parishioners, some members of the support group have found freelance work to help them survive the dry spell.
The Life and Livelihood group has also created a forum on Linkedin.com, the professional networking site, where members can be alerted to any employment opportunities in their areas of interest.
The private donation that came in December also helped fund a six-week research process, in which group member Karen Hayes compiled information on any other national agencies, churches or nonprofits that have set up programs similar to Life and Livelihood. Culled from that research, Hayes drafted a guidebook with information about where and how members who find themselves out of a job and don’t know what to do might access services like healthcare, food stamps and job training.
Efforts to expand the mission of Life and Livelihood are ongoing. Last month, Serrano attended the Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, DC, where she was part of a team that discussed economic issues facing Americans today with elected officials.
And at All Saints’ own annual staff and vestry conference early March, discussion centered on the ongoing recession and the natural pattern economic cycles tend to follow. There, Serrano learned that economic recessions go through stages of development, from the lowest point to an eventual up-surge. She hopes the same is true for the people who live through them.
“Once you hit rock bottom there’s nowhere else to go but up,” she says.