WHEN Donna Capone donated clothes to the town's emergency aid group last winter, she never thought she would return a year later needing help. But with her husband, a carpenter, out of work for a year, and three small children to care for, Mrs. Capone (not her real name) is now seeking aid from a host of donors - her in-laws, her church, the fuel company, and now ``A Place to Turn,'' the Natick food pantry. ``I never thought I'd find myself here, not in a million years,'' she says, embarrassed, loading a borrowed Jeep with four grocery bags filled with enough peanut butter, cereal, turkey, Spaghetti-O's, and bread to last her family a week and a half. ``But I'm really thankful that people and places like this are here to help.''
Several towns away, a middle-school librarian waits in line in Woburn, Mass., to pick up her weekly unemployment check. ``I'm really grateful for it. But it feels awkward coming here, like I've lost my self-esteem.''
A mixture of shame and gratitude, of despair and hope, creases the faces of thousands of unemployed New Englanders.
The situation has gone from boom to bust quickly, from full employment early in 1989 to an unemployment rate of 6.1 across the six states by November 1990. The national unemployment rate is 5.8 percent; many economists consider a 4 percent to 5 percent unemployment rate normal.
Job cuts have occurred across the board - in construction, retail, schools, finance, factories. Jobs have been eliminated at all levels - from corporate executives to supervisors to lifetime employees.
``It's gotten very bad, very quickly. And that is fearful for people,'' says Mary Sullivan, a Boston-based regional economist for the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. ``To go in a year and a half from labor shortages to massive unemployment ... is scary.''
Still, she says, the situation was worse in 1982, when unemployment rates peaked more than 8 percent. Since then the ``Massachusetts miracle'' employed people at rapid rates, and the state and the region shifted toward more high-tech manufacturing.
Massachusetts has taken the hardest hit - a 7.4 percent jobless rate in December and 125,000 layoffs in 1990. Most cuts have been in the manufacturing sector - automotive, defense, garment, and computer industries. The construction industry has cut about one-quarter of its jobs.
Unemployment funds are running out in Connecticut and Massachusetts, forcing states to borrow from federal funds. Each month, Massachusetts pays out $100 million in unemployment wages to about 114,000 people, according to the Department of Employment Training in Boston. Payments average $215 a week, about half the worker's wage.
One group feeling the pinch is middle-class middle-age white males, whom employers are replacing with younger, cheaper workers, says Agnes Smith of the Plymouth County (Mass.) Extension Service. ``These are the people we're seeing more of'' in food pantries and asking for fuel assistance, she says. They are too young to collect Social Security, and have too many assets to qualify for government handouts.
In Woburn, a group called ``Unemployed Professionals'' assembles every week to boost morale and discuss job-interview strategies in the building where they pick up their unemployment checks. Around a table sit an accountant supervisor, a retail manager, a facilities manager, and a sales manager - all recently laid off from $50,000-a-year jobs. All have families to support.
``It's hard because people think looking for a job at my level is a one-month proposition,'' says Gary Simmons, laid off after 20 years in the field of accounting. ``But it's not!''
Members discuss strained relations with spouses and friends who aren't sympathetic to the length of time the job hunt can take. Group leader Art Berg says that a job search for a professional-level position can take six months to a year.
Is there any good that comes of the situation? ``You appreciate the little things more, like having a car and having a family,'' says John Mahan, laid off from his job managing properties. ``What do I do all day? Wait for the mail!''