Planning to do good? Get ready for haters.

28 Mar

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.24.23 PM

This article originally appeared on Tonic.com on February 25th, 2011.

Imagine that after a life-long struggle with obesity, you decided to take measures to shed 100 pounds. But when you told your friends and family, they weren’t on board.

“We’d rather you kept the weight on,” they said. “Sure, you’re at a higher risk for diabetes and cancer, but aren’t you more comfortable that way?”

Crazy, right?

Now imagine that your weight loss wasn’t physical, but material. Imagine selling your house and moving into one half the size so you could give the money away. What would your family and friends say?

That’s what Kevin Salwen and his family found out when they did just that — sold their palatial Atlanta home for one half as large to give the money to help villagers in remote Ghana. But when they broke the news to the people they knew best, the reaction wasn’t what they expected.

“I think we felt that this is something that everybody should know about. We were very proud of it,” Salwen told Tonic. “We thought everybody would understand and embrace that. That was a poor judgment on our part.”

Salwen, who wrote a book about the experience with his teenager daughter, Hannah, called The Power of Half, says those initial conversations about his family’s monumental life change were often painful and awkward.

“Our friends couldn’t quite figure out just what the heck it was about,” said Salwen.
“How did we go from people they thought they knew to people who would make this kind of decision?”

If you start living on less, giving away more of your income to charity, or making any sort of switch away from the typical American consumer lifestyle, you’re going to face confused and even skeptical reactions, said Salwen.

“A lot of people were uncomfortable because it was challenging them. It made them question their own process and their own way of life,” he explained.

Salwen remembers one day when his wife, Joan, came home from lunch with a friend. When Joan described her family’s new adventure, the friend burst into tears and said, “This is not my reality.”

“Joan was so upset. She told us, ‘I’m sick and tired of being a weirdo. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I just want to shut up,’” said Salwen.

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.24.12 PMBut although his family has lost some friends, they’ve also gained some new ones.

Despite the criticism they encountered, they’ve never regretted making the choice to downsize.

“Our small act of philanthropy has brought us into contact with so many of the most loving and kind people,” said Salwen. “For everybody who says, ‘This is not a relationship I want to have anymore,’ we’ve had 50 people who’ve come into our lives who put our own generosity to shame.”

So if you’re thinking of “getting off the hedonistic treadmill,” as Salwen says, what should you expect? And how can you learn from his family’s experience to make the transition easier? Here are a few tips:

— ”Recognize that you are going to be running headlong into what people have been lead to believe all their lives.”
The idea that “bigger is better” and “the new beats the old” are part of American culture. ”That concept is so deeply ingrained in who we are and what we do that almost no matter what you say, it’s going to come across as difficult for some people,” says Salwen.

— Make it about you.
Instead of talking about how you want to change the world, talk about your personal motivations for making a change. ”Let them know, I’m doing this because I think I can be happier,” Salwen suggests. “I’m doing this because I feel like I’ve gotten away from my core values.”

— Practice your message.
Figure out what you want people to know and how best to say it beforehand, so you don’t get swept up in excitement. Also, decide how much you want your choices to be a challenge to others. ”Some would say that we were overly challenging,” said Salwen. “But we really do believe that people can be better, healthier and happier. Happier in a deeper, more authentic sense.”

— Embrace change and focus on the bigger picture.

“I don’t have the same friends as I had from high school or college or when our kids were young,” said Salwen. “You go through groups of friends. If there are people who liked us better before than they do now, that’s okay. I can deal with that.”

Salwen says he doesn’t regret for a moment that he listened to his teenage daughter’s prompting to consume less and give more. ”We’re so much happier.We’re so much closer. We’re surrounded by generous, wonderful people. Our life is less about having and more about meaning.”

The geeks shall inherit the earth

28 Mar

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.33.44 PMThis story originally appeared on Tonic.com on Dec. 24, 2010.

It’s not uncommon for friends to call up Janet Mitts with computer problems. Last week, she even fixed her hairstylist’s laptop. She regularly brings people down to the basement computer workshop where she volunteers to give their machines a diagnosis and a cure.

But Mitts isn’t your typical computer whiz. She’s a 66-year-old retired African-American woman who lives on the south side of Chicago. She learned to fix computers and even built her own with the help of a scrappy nonprofit called FreeGeek Chicago.

“I always loved taking things apart, and I got fascinated by computers,” she says. “I love learning how the parts work, what makes them tick, what goes where.”

Mitts is not the only one. FreeGeek Chicago has taught hundreds of people how to take computers apart and put them back together, allowing them to volunteer weekly to eventually earn their own refurbished computer. FreeGeek has two objectives: to cut down on the amount of computer waste thrown into landfills and to give people low-cost access to technology.

Founder David Eads says he’s amazed at how FreeGeek has grown, without any support from grants or foundations, to create a vibrant community.

Six years ago, Eads and a few young, idealistic friends were passionate about narrowing the digital divide and frustrated with the computer-lab model often employed in poor communities.

“You learn computers by having them in your home,” says Eads. “You learn computers by learning to break them and then fix them.”

Soon after, Eads and his friends learned about a new nonprofit in Oregon, FreeGeek Portland, that was providing free computer parts and training to residents there.

Soon after, FreeGeek Chicago was born.

Although it started off slow, FreeGeek Chicago has taken off. In the first three years it was open, about 100 volunteers completed their build-a-computer program. In 2010, Eads estimates that up to 750 people will have gone through it.

Part of that rise in volunteers is their open door policy. Eads says FreeGeek doesn’t put limits on who can come through its doors — there are no income restrictions or background checks.

“I always say, ‘We don’t care if you just got out of the joint or you just got out or church, as long as you are willing to treat people with respect,’” he says.

Although they use funds from computer sales and scrap metals to keep it running, Eads says FreeGeek can always use a little more of two things: money and computer donations. In particular, he says, they need donations of old laptops.

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.33.34 PM“People want to buy laptops and volunteers want to work on laptops, so they’re a win-win for us,” says Eads.
FreeGeek Chicago runs almost entirely on volunteers, with only one paid staff person, Aaron Howze, running the day-to-day operations. Howze is a former electrical engineer who came to FreeGeek to help out and got hooked.

“I found that I could learn what I didn’t know and I could teach what I did,” he said. “I found that extremely satisfying.”

Twenty-year-old Sarah Fletcher recently came to FreeGeek to build her own computer. She’s studying business at Kennedy King College on Chicago’s south side and needs a computer for her school work. Even though it was her first day in the workshop, she said she planned on coming back — a lot.

“I don’t just want to get my computer,” says Fletcher. “I want to become a staff member. I want to be one of the people who knows everything.”

So, does Janet Mitts, admitted computer devotee, now think of herself as a geek?

“No,” she says. “But if I was, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.”

Meet the 99ers: “Even McDonald’s Won’t Hire Me”

4 Mar

Last but not least is Louis99ers-hdre’s story, the first 99er I interviewed. When I look back now, I think of Louise’s struggle as a mom and how terrified I would be not to be able to take care of my child. I hope I’m never there, but if there’s one thing I have learned about interviewing people who have hit rock bottom is that it can happen to anyone. I’m most anxious to catch up with Louise and hear how she is doing. Check back for updates on the 99ers, and read the rest of my series on people who maxed out their unemployment after the Great Recession with Yvonne, Ricky, Susan and Doug.

007-250x187-1When I first heard that unemployment benefits can last up to 99 weeks, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical.

I thought, that’s almost two years of checks. Someone can’t find a job after looking for two years?

Then I heard Louise’s story.

Louise Davies of Boston, Massachusetts had worked in retail for 18 years when she was laid off from Macy’s in 2008. Desperately looking for a job, she just exhausted her 99th week of unemployment.

When a person’s laid off, she normally gets about 26 weeks of unemployment from her state. But in this Great Recession, Congress has authorized additional federal tiers, which add up to 99 total weeks of unemployment benefits. Once a person gets to the fourth tier and is done with her 99 weeks, her benefits are done, no matter her job situation.

That’s where Louise is today. Ninety-nine weeks and no job in sight. She’s not alone — though there aren’t hard numbers yet, an estimated one million people could become “99ers” by the end of 2010. There are between five and six job seekers for every opening, and it is now taking people longer than ever before to find employment; the average unemployed person is out of work for a record 31.2 weeks. A quarter of the unemployed — equivalent to the population of Connecticut — have already been out of a job for more than a year.

At 40, Louise is a wife and a mom, and she’s been working since she could get her workers permit at 16.

“I used to ride my bike to my local McDonald’s for a 7 a.m. shift,” she said.  “Now even they won’t hire me because I’m over-experienced.”

Job hunting is what consumes her, every day.

“I look for jobs on every available board, paper or every person I have networked with several times a day,” Louise said. “This past week, I received my first response in two months: ‘I am sorry but we believe that we have found candidates that are better suited for this position than you.'”

Her benefits have been barely keeping the family afloat since she was laid off. Her husband works for FedEx and was working on his master’s degree before this happened. Their finances are a wreck.

“We’ve had to sell our car, burn through both of our 401(k)s and charge up all our credit cards just to stay afloat,” she says. “We’re a month behind on our rent. I jump every time the doorbell or telephone ring because I know that it is someone looking for money from us, and we don’t have any.”

She says she’s looked in every field — retail, office work, human resources, customer service and anything else she can apply for. She’s even applied to wait tables, but they objected that her last waitressing job was 20 years ago.

The family’s precarious financial situation hasn’t just taken a toll on their finances. It’s taken over Louise’s life.

“I bite my nails. My hair is starting to fall out,” she said. “I have very little dignity left.  I can barely look at my husband, I feel so ashamed.”

Food stamps help, she says. She’s applied for Section 8 housing, started taking the bus, and, when she’s not looking for a job, spends time playing outside with her daughter.

She says that she never thought something like this could happen to two people who have worked hard all their lives.

“I never dreamed of this world that I am living in,” she said. “I hate for my daughter to see me like this, and I hope that this will be a brief period in her life that she doesn’t remember as she grows older.”

Louise created the Facebook group, “Tier V to Survive,” to rally support around Congress extending unemployment by another tier. She says she calls her Senators and representatives and faxes them daily. She says there are millions like her who have been so hurt by this recession that they won’t be able to survive without further help.

“I feel that they are so very out of touch with us,” she said.  “If they had just one relative who was going through this they would understand that we are hanging on by a fingernail.”

Meet the 99ers: “I’m Scared”

3 Mar

99ers-hdrSusan Madrak’s 99 weeks are up.

“I’m done. My last check was three weeks ago,” she says about her unemployment benefits. She’s got two months worth of savings in the bank, but after that, she says she’s not sure what will happen.

“I’m scared,” she said. “I have a couple of job leads I’m pursuing, but who knows? I don’t really know what to do if none of this comes through.”

Susan, who’s 55 and lives in Philadelphia, has been pounding the pavement since 2008 when she was laid off from her sales job at a consulting business.

headshot“I’ve looked everywhere,” Susan said. “I have probably sent out 400 resumes in the last year and a half, two years. I’ve gotten one interview. One interview.

Although these last two years have been incredibly difficult, her saving grace has been her political blog — Suburban Guerilla — where she writes about the country, the economy and her own struggle to find work. Her readers have even pitched in when she’s been in dire straits, paying $700 a month COBRA health insurance coverage for the first 18 months of her unemployment and chipping in for car repairs.

Some conservatives cling tight to the ludicrous notion that people on unemployment are enjoying themselves and refusing to look for work. One U.S. representative recently lamented that extending unemployment benefits is “creating hobos.” Not so, says Susan.

She says it’s been nearly impossible to find a job, and anything out there offers so little security that it’s difficult to take a chance on it. If she takes a new job, but gets laid off before working there long enough to qualify for unemployment, it means she’s out of luck.

“You have to make an educated guess,” said Susan. “When you know the economy is falling down, you’re not really interested in playing dice.”

What angers her the most is the ambivalence of politicians in her own Democratic party.

“I am devastated by the fact that the party I have supported all my life is so utterly indifferent to the suffering of ordinary men and women,” said Susan. “For the first time in my life, I don’t even feel like voting.”

While Congress has passed extensions for the current tiers of unemployment, almost no one is talking about adding another tier for people like herself who have exhausted all benefits.

“They had plenty of money to prop up Wall Street. They don’t have enough money to help people who are struggling,” she says.

With no help on the horizon, Susan wonders what the next few months have in store.

“I’m sitting here wondering how I’m going to pay my bills if this money runs out,” she said. “I just don’t know.”

This post was part of my 2010 series on the 99ers  – people who were still looking for a job once their 99 weeks of unemployment were up. I’m going to be following up with these folks to find out where they are now, but you can read the previous stories here, here and here.

Meet the 99ers: “The American Dream Is a Living Nightmare”

2 Mar

99ers-hdrHere’s another from my 2010 series “Meet the 99ers.” As you probably remember, after the Great Recession, Congress approved extra emergency unemployment benefits for people who were out of work, extending unemployment for 99 weeks. But there were still plenty of people looking for a job, even after that term ended, and I interviewed a handful of them. Today is Doug Deaton’s story. Doug hails from my home state of Michigan, which is no longer the state with the highest unemployment, but still is sixth from the top with a rate of 8.9 percent.

 

It should be no surprise that one of our 99ers hails from Michigan. With the highest unemployment rate in the nation, the mitten state has been hard-hit by the economic downturn, compounding years of loss in the automotive industry.

Doug Deaton knows exactly how hard it is to find a job in Michigan.

At 62, many people might happily take Social Security and retire, rather than continue looking for a job.

But not Doug. He wants to work. He needs to work.

Doug moved back to Michigan from Seattle several years ago after identity theft ruined his finances. He moved back in with his elderly mother in Battle Creek, where he had grown up.

“Instead of being able to help her, I needed her help. It should have been the other way around,” he says.  “I should have been able to do more for her.”

He got a job with a temp-to-hire firm and began working at a nearby university, with the promise of being hired full time. But when a new director chose to hire a personal friend instead, this former consultant/conference coordinator/sales manager was again out of work and out of money.

Since then, he’s looked for work daily and survived on unemployment benefits, which he’s now exhausted.

“I have emailed and mailed thousands [of resumes] in the last three years. About once every three or four months, I might get some type of response,” he says. “Most of the time, nothing.”

One of the problems, he says, is age discrimination. Although he has a lot of job experience, skills and is in good health, most companies are not interested in hiring an older person. When he applied at Starbucks, he says the manager didn’t want to hire him, even though he had experience as a barista.

“I already knew the job, but he literally told me I was too old and that I couldn’t keep up,” Doug said.

Doug says he ended up doing so well on the test that the manager had no choice but to hire him. Even that position disappeared, though, when he wasn’t given enough hours to stay on.

His mother recently passed away after a long illness, and since then, Doug has been struggling to get by.

“I am blessed to have a landlord who is a prince. I owe him an incredible amount of back rent,” he says. “He knows what I have been through, and he knows I have nowhere else to go if I were evicted.”

He says he’s resisted getting government help as long as possible, but he’s had to use food stamps and Medicare. He applied to get early Social Security, just to pay his rent.

But this isn’t the America he’s believed in — one where there’s an honest day’s work for anyone who’s willing.

“The majority of our elected officials have forgotten why they were sent to D.C. in the first place, and that is to do the will of the people, and take care of the American dream,” he says. “For me, it has become a living nightmare.”

Missed the other posts in this series? Read Yvonne’s story and Ricky’s too.

Meet the 99ers: “We May Never Be Gainfully Employed Again”

1 Mar

99ers-hdrYesterday, I posted the first of a five-post series that I did back in 2010 on the “99ers” – people who maxed out their 99 weeks of unemployment after the Great Recession. Despite the fact that these stories are three years old, I was surprised by how relevant they are today and how little has changed for workers in our economy. Los Angeles’ unemployment rate is still a dismal 11.3 percent.

n578893139_71574_4839Here’s Yvonne’s story:

Just a few months back, Yvonne Shine was nearly evicted from her “rinky-dink” apartment in downtown Los Angeles because she couldn’t pay her rent.

“I think I’m going to be back in the same position again by the first of next month,” she said. “I don’t have any money coming in.”

The fact that she’s been unemployed for over two years is still shocking to Yvonne. She started working at 15 years old and has decades of experience in administration, including work at a movie studio, a major university, a biomedical engineering company and more. But since she was laid off from her job as an executive assistant at a local union in 2007, she can count the number of temp jobs she’s gotten on one hand.

She spends her days reading the Bible and learning the latest software to keep her resume current. Right now, she’s mastering Windows 7 and the latest Microsoft Office.

“It never occurred to me that at my age now I would have no benefits, no pension, and be totally unemployed and virtually unable to reenter the workforce,” she said. “There is a very good chance that a lot of us in our 40s and 50s will never be gainfully employed again.”

The unemployment rate in Los Angeles is over 12 percent, and higher in the black and Hispanic communities. Yvonne says the few places that are hiring where she lives don’t even pay enough to make ends meet.

“What jobs there are out there, they don’t pay a living wage. There’s no place in this country where you can live off of $10 an hour, not even if you’re single and certainly not if you have a family,” she said.

Yvonne’s list of unpaid bills keeps rising, and the resources she has left to search for a job are waning.

“I have a $1,000 power bill. It’s by the grace of God that they transferred the service since I moved,” she said. “My phone bill is due today — I’m going to be getting a call soon saying that if I don’t pay, my service will be disconnected. I don’t own a car anymore. I don’t even have money to buy a bus pass.”

Her family and friends have helped out by paying her phone bill or her rent when they can, but they’re struggling too.

“There is only so much they can do. They can’t do it every month,” she said.

Yvonne, who was born in Alabama and grew up during the Civil Rights movement there, says she can’t fathom not exercising her right to vote, and yet she feels that there’s no one left to vote for that will respond to her pleas for help. Our elected officials, she says, seem more interested in their own job security than the suffering of the unemployed.

“It’s not representation of the people, by the people and for the people unless they’re the people,” she says.

Yvonne says she’s not worried about the future, but only because of her strong faith. Whether she finds a job or ends up in a homeless shelter next month, she says she knows she will be alright.

“It’s all in the hands of God. I fall asleep praying to God and thanking him for delivering me. He’s the only hope I’ve had, and he’s not failed me yet,” she said.

Meet the 99ers: “We Played By the Rules, and Now We’ve Lost Everything”

28 Feb

99ers-hdrI wrote this series on the 99ers – folks who have maxed out their 99 weeks of unemployment but hadn’t found a job – back in 2010 for Change.org. The pieces may be a few years old, but I was surprised how incredibly relevant they still were as I read through them. According to the February jobs report, 38 percent of the unemployed in the U.S. are considered “long-term unemployed,” meaning they’ve been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Why 27 weeks? Because these days, the extra emergency benefits that Congress approved during the recession have lapsed, and people only get 26 weeks of unemployment compensation from their state.

I need to follow up with these folks and see how they are doing now. I’ll put that on my never-ending to-do list.

Anyway, meet Ricky, a father and an electrician. His story about selling his tools to pay for his son’s medication broke my heart. Take a look, and check back for the other four posts later this week:

 

If it weren’t for his son, says Ricky Macoy, he doesn’t know if he would have survived these last two years of unemployment.

“I suffer from depression,” he says. “There are times when my situation makes me feel so hopeless I can barely get out of bed. There have been times, like about a month ago, where I was almost suicidal. If it hadn’t been for my son, I don’t know … ”

Ricky, who’s 52, has worked as an electrician for 30 years, but was laid off from his job working on ocean-going vessels in Louisiana in November of 2008 and hasn’t worked since. He and his 11-year-old son, John, have been barely scraping by during that time. He’s spent all the money he had saved in John’s college fund, and still, they may be evicted from their Texas home next week.

“I’m worried to death that if I get to be homeless that my son’s going to be take away from me and put in foster care,” Ricky says.

He says his son has been putting on a brave face, but Ricky knows it’s been hard on him too.

“He worries. He just kind of keeps things bottled up inside,” he says. “I haven’t said anything to him about the foster care. He’s very brave. He knows right now things are hard.”

Not being able to provide for his son has been the worst part of his unemployment, Ricky says. He says so many men like him have provided for their families for years, a role they’ve cherished.

“It makes you feel good when you bring home the check and you know everything is going to be alright,” he says. “When there’s nothing coming in, you feel like a failure. When I look my kid in the eye to tell him I don’t have money for a field trip for school — $12 for a field trip for school. I didn’t have it.”

But the worst day was when he had to scrounge up $5 for John’s asthma medicine. He went to the clinic and asked for samples, but no one had any. He had to sell some of his tools he used to use for work — a tool worth more than $150 sold for $10 — to get money for medicine.

Ricky says it’s maddening to know you’ve done nothing to deserve this suffering, and yet, there’s nothing you can do to escape it. He says millions like him are suffering, and no one seems to notice.

“I worked hard, played by the rules and I done lost everything I worked my whole life for,” he says. “We’re the people who helped build this economy. We’re the ones who got up every day, put our boots on and went to work. We played by the rules, and now we’ve lost everything.”

Ricky got about 60 weeks of unemployment, but his last check came February 7th. Texas didn’t qualify for Tier IV benefits because its state unemployment rate wasn’t high enough. Ricky starts his day every morning looking for jobs anywhere he can find one.

He had just gotten back from a job interview when I spoke to him yesterday morning.  Ricky was hopeful about it, but the employer still had 18 more men to interview for the position.

He says in times like these, he and his son have had to rely on prayer when they haven’t had anything else to get them through.

A few months back, when they didn’t have the money to pay the rent and were going to be evicted, he and his son got on their knees and prayed for a solution. The next day, Ricky’s brother came up with the money to pay their rent.

“My son said to me, ‘Dad, prayer really works, doesn’t it?'” Ricky says. “I said, ‘Yes, it does, son.'”

Hope seems dim for Ricky right now. He asked me if I would say a prayer for him.

I said I would.

Update 4/30/2010: Ricky called me this morning to thank me for my prayers. He got the job. He says it’s like 1,000 pounds being lifted from his shoulders. We’re so happy for him and wish him and his son the very best.

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