Amid 18 percent unemployment, Indiana county finds unity

With one of the highest US jobless rates, Noble County sees a rise in volunteer efforts to help those who are struggling.

Richard Mertens
Leonard Hicks (right), meeting with Gary Likes at the Dalton foundry, has started Organizing the Unemployed, a group that represents the jobless and helps them find new work.

Lori Miller says she feels more needed than ever, and that is not a good thing.

People are streaming into the Ligonier Public Library not just to read, but to fax unemployment forms, to file claims online, and to look for postings on Internet job sites, says the assistant to the director. To help handle the load, Ms. Miller recently attended a workshop on how better to help the unemployed.

In Indiana’s Noble County, a patchwork of cornfields and small towns in the penumbra of Detroit’s failing auto industry, she is simply doing her part. In an area nearing Depression-era conditions – 17.9 percent unemployment – every resident has a role in helping the community survive: Bankers are refusing to foreclose on many families, the unemployed are volunteering at soup kitchens, and one gardener has planted 1,000 vegetables in his basement to feed the hungry.

It is a portrait of the future America is desperate to avoid – an economy eviscerated. Yet amid the despair, there is the spark of a deeper humanity, as residents of Noble County find, in each other, the strength to stand against economic forces threatening to overwhelm this corner of the Midwest.

“This is a new situation for all of us,” says Jane Freiburger, office manager at Common Grace, a small church-affiliated charity in Kendallville. “We’ve never seen this much unemployment.”

Unemployment nears 18 percent

And the jobs keep vanishing. While the national unemployment rate rose to 8.1 percent last month, Noble County’s 17.9 percent jobless rate is only 0.1 percent below that of nearby Elkhart, which leads the nation in unemployment.

Many of Noble County’s factories make parts for the automobile industry, and so what was once a fount of jobs and modest prosperity is now a source of woe. In two weeks, one of Noble County’s largest employers, the Dalton Corp. foundry, which made casings for transmissions and air conditioners, is shutting down its furnaces, adding 250 more to the unemployed. These losses, and the fear of still more, have left many residents numb.

Many go to Common Grace when they have nowhere else to turn. They come often, seeking money for rent or utilities and sometimes groceries from the food pantry. At the same time a current of help flows in the opposite direction, as local people drop off food and send checks in the mail, most of the time unsolicited.

“On the one hand it’s frightening,” says the Rev. Dan Barker, Common Grace’s soft-spoken director, who wonders how deep the crisis will go. “On the other hand, there’s been a tremendous outpouring of generosity in the community. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Across the county in Ligonier, Jerry Hochstetler has been unemployed for a year, ever since the newspaper he worked for laid off pressmen. Four months later, the printing business that employed his wife closed. Yet he is in the kitchen of the Ligonier United Methodist Church not as one of the needy, but as a volunteer. Along with a dozen others, he is cooking potato and chicken soup and making sandwiches for more than 150 people, who come to eat lunch and take home baskets of bread, milk, potatoes, and other food.

“It’s either smile or cry,” says Mr. Hochstetler, who seems happy for the chance to make himself useful. “You know, you wake up in the mornings and make the best of what you’ve got.”

'Community tables'

So-called “community tables” like this one in Ligonier, are sprouting up around Noble County. Ligonier’s started two weeks ago; another starts next week in Kendallville. “I think we’re really trying to rally together to see what we can do for each other,” says Barbara Dragoo, one of the Ligonier organizers.

The crisis has tested almost every institution in the county. Lawrence Doyle, president of Campbell and Fetter, a family-owned bank in Kendallville, says workers receiving unemployment insurance often cannot pay their bills. But he said his bank has foreclosed on few homes. It works with people who have lost jobs by negotiating smaller payments, thus helping families to stay in their homes, he says.

“As long as they continue to make an effort, we’re going to be here with them,” says Mr. Doyle. “From a human standpoint it makes sense. From a business standpoint it makes sense, too.”

Weeds to veggies

Some people have followed their own inspirations. Bill Parker is an avid gardener and a devout Christian. Not long ago, he was driving past a weedy field in Kendallville when a thought struck him: Why not turn the weeds into vegetables?

“It was like God said, ‘A garden would look good here,’” says Mr. Parker.

He cleaned out his basement and planted. He now has, by his estimate, more than 1,000 tomatoes, peppers, squash, and other vegetables sprouting under fluorescent lights. He hopes to supply vegetables to the community dinners in Kendallville by summer.

Simply feeding people has become a countywide effort. When high school business teacher Mark Cockroft learned that 70 percent of children at a nearby grade school receive subsidized meals, he wondered what happened to them on weekends. He raised money from local businesses and organized a few of his students: On Friday, they would send children home with backpacks of granola bars, applesauce, and other snacks. The project, called Boomerang Backpacks, started two weeks ago, and last Friday the students filled 155 backpacks. They hope to expand to more schools.

Grateful but ...

For those on the receiving end, such help is both gratifying and embarrassing. “To know that someone else out there, that doesn’t even know me, is willing to help, because they know there are people that need help – that means a lot,” says Eric Stadtfeld, whose fourth-grade son brought home a backpack last weekend.

But receiving is often harder than giving. “I have a little bit of a pride issue,” says Mr. Stadtfeld, whose job ended when the auto-parts company he worked for left for Mexico. “I have a little bit of a problem accepting help from other people.”

Indeed, not all help meets with enthusiasm. Representatives of local and regional agencies held a “resource fair” at the foundry recently. The women offered stacks of information on help for the soon-to-be unemployed, but few of the workers showed up.

“A lot of this isn’t going to set in for a month after they lose their jobs,” said Leonard Hicks, head of the workers’ union.

Self-help efforts

But Mr. Hicks and others haven’t waited. They have started a group to represent the unemployed and help them overcome obstacles to new employment. Many of the foundry workers, for example, lack a high school diploma. The group, called Organizing the Unemployed, is part political action, part self-help.

“It’s basically the unemployed helping the unemployed,” said Gary Likes, a burly foundry worker who was trying to recruit members after his shift Thursday.

People in Noble County know that the help of neighbors cannot pay their mortgages or health insurance premiums or replace the jobs that are draining away Some have already given up and left. But for those who stay, the neighborly compassion does offer comfort and solidarity. And in this conservative, churchgoing county, it also suggests a moral lesson.

“Everyone sees they’re not the only ones in this situation: As bad as I think my situation is, there’s someone out there with a worse story,” says Stadtfeld. “That’s sort of a wake-up call to decide what are the most important things, such as being with family. I think communities really have to go back to basics, that family is the core of everything, that communities are the mainstay.”

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