In late 2011 I hit rock bottom.
Two years earlier, in honor of my 20th anniversary at the St. Charles Journal, the good people at Lee Enterprises kicked me out the door. I wasn’t alone.
“You’ll be fine,” everyone said. “With your skills and knowledge you won’t have any trouble finding a job,” everyone said. “You’ll be better off,” everyone said. “If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know,” everyone said.
You see, I’d lost my job at the height of the Great Recession of 2009. It was so bad the government was giving you extra money for not having a job. When I left the unemployment office for the first time the receptionist didn’t say “Good luck finding a job,” she said “See you next week.”
The job market had changed greatly in 20 years. I got my job at the Journal by walking into the office one day and telling the receptionist I was a journalist looking for work. She went back to the newsroom and the managing editor came out and told me to leave him my number. I was hired a couple weeks later.
Today you can’t do that. Today it’s all Human Resources and Go To Our Website and Fill Out This Form but first Create a Login and Password. Talk to a human being that you might actually be working for? Forget that.
It was not a good time. I lost faith. I lost friends. The small reservoir of self-confidence I had quickly ran dry. The only thing I was building up was bitterness and jealousy.
Two years later, after watching every episode of “That ’70s Show” out of sequence (try making sense of all the relationships when you watch it that way), the unemployment ran out. It was around this time that one of Andrew’s teachers mentioned to Laura that there was always a need for people to work with the developmentally disabled. Oh, but they couldn’t hire me because (a) conflict of interest and (b) it would be too convenient.
I searched the web and found the St. Louis ARC. Sure enough, they were hiring. I filled out their form. Someone from Human Resources got back to me. We met. She was impressed by one of my answers, which I had simply quoted verbatim from the company website. I was cleared for a second interview. My first second interview in two years.
At the same time, I had applied for a job in the public relations department at the Special School District — a district that works with developmentally disabled kids in St. Louis. Surely I would get this gig. I have a writing background, I have a developmentally disabled kid. I had an interview.
Before I heard back from them, the ARC sent me to their facility in Creve Coeur. I walked in the room to meet the director and was — what’s the word I’m looking for? – overwhelmed. It’s one thing to live with a developmentally disabled person, it’s a whole other thing to live with 40 all at once. We eventually went into his private office where I was pretty much offered the job. I told the man I had another opportunity waiting in the wings but I would let him know soon.
I drove home praying that SSD would call. They didn’t. I didn’t even rate a second interview. And you wonder why I lost my faith. Reluctantly, I accepted the job at Sunnen.
Unlike other locations, the Sunnen facility is all in one big, open room — appropriately called the Work Activity Room (or WAR room — and yes, I know it’s redundant). I don’t know exactly how many people we served, let’s just stick with 40. All with their own…personalities. Some never spoke. Some screamed at random. Some asked the same questions over and over. Some said the same phrases over and over (It was here that I learned to appreciate that my son wouldn’t talk). Some would get violent. Some would fall down. Some loved to hug. Some would break into tears spontaneously. Some would steal your food. Some had issues using the bathroom. Terrible, horrible issues.
But enough about the staff.
Just kidding. It was the staff that kept me going. It takes special people to work with special people. And the people at the ARC were indeed special. So how would I fit in?
I went to the benefits meeting. The guy talked about putting money in the retirement plan and how it would be vested in five years. No thanks, I won’t be here that long.
I sat in the lunch room, watching people eat. Some people you should never watch eat. I tried to keep my food down. Across the room, Annie looks over at me, smiles, and says, “You’ll get used to it.”
Not me. I’m just here until something better comes along.
Four years later…something came along.
I got used to it.
More than that, I came to enjoy working at the St. Louis ARC. I came to love all those crazy people, and not just the staff. Oh, some of them I never really connected with, but some I did. Some of them made me laugh. Some I wanted to punch in the face. They all drove me crazy at times but they could also show unconditional affection. I am confident I have been hugged more in the past four years than I have in the previous 40.
Still, there’s only so many times you can find yourself sitting on the floor of a bathroom stall in Wal-Mart, struggling to get clean pants on someone all the while hearing “I have a Master’s Degree! I have a Master’s Degree!” running through your head.
My last day at Sunnen was Monday. I started my new job on Wednesday. It’s a lot quieter there. No one has hugged me yet. I have a feeling it would be frowned on. Things seem to be going OK but I like to think if it doesn’t work out that I’ll be welcomed back at Sunnen.
That’s the thing about the ARC and why it’s special. They take in people who no one else will.
Like an unemployed entertainment writer.