One Town's Struggle Hard Times Big Hearts

updated 12/21/2009 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/2009 01:00AM

WHEN JODI UETRECHT spotted a sale on Thanksgiving turkeys in late November at Kroger, she asked the grocery manager to waive the one-per-customer limit—and bought 125. The next day, she and her husband, Dan, were passing out the birds, free, at a local soup kitchen. "We have instilled in our kids that we're expected to give and serve, and that's why we're here," Dan says. "These are tough times, but there's some amazing giving going on."

Unlike many of their neighbors, the Uetrechts, grain farmers outside of Wilmington, Ohio, had a pretty good year. The stock market may be climbing, but on Main streets across the country many are still reeling from the nation's economic plunge, and the numbers in Clinton County, where Wilmington is located, are especially grim. There the unemployment rate is nearly 5 percentage points higher than the nation's average of 10 percent. In May 2008 the town was blindsided when its biggest employer, overnight courier DHL, which operated the nation's largest privately owned airport in Wilmington, announced a total pullout, eliminating 9,000 jobs across seven rural counties. That triggered job losses, shop closings and fewer customers across all the businesses that cater to Wilmington's 12,000 residents. And as severance and unemployment benefits run out, the signs of hardship are everywhere, from empty storefronts to the growing lines for free meals at Our Father's Kitchen, which feeds up to 500 people for lunch on days when groceries are also given out from its renovated warehouse space downtown. "It's not just the extreme poor," says Allen Willoughby, director of Sugartree Ministry, which runs the kitchen. "It's hitting the middle class and everybody else. We all know the people who are suffering in our city."

But with suffering comes opportunity, and, in this proud farming community founded by Quakers in 1810, even hope. All across the town, and especially along Wilmington's Main Street, neighbors have come together to help neighbors by opening their doors, giving more and donating their time. "It's a culture shock," says part-time mayor David Raizk. "But you talk about the mom-and-pops and the can-do attitude: They're all saying we're going to get through this, and we're going to pull together."

Eric and Sandy Wogomen know something about shock and using their ingenuity to get past it. With two girls, ages 19 and 11, at home, the couple were earning a combined $118,000 when DHL's announcement spelled the end of Sandy's job in corporate purchasing. Then in January, Eric, 46, was abruptly laid off from his job as a quality manager at an auto parts manufacturer. When Sandy, 44, saw her severance run out in October, she landed a new job doing government billings—at less pay and with an hour commute—last month. But they're still terrified they could lose their three-bedroom ranch house. "That's our biggest fear," she says. "My part of the American dream of getting a great job and moving up within the company is never going to happen again," says Eric. Adds Sandy: "We're faced with losing everything we've struggled to build."

When Eric could find no other work, they opened a consignment shop just off Main Street called Next to New. They intended the store as a bridge. But their impact on Wilmington has made it something more. Says Eric: "All day long I have moms coming in saying, 'I'm so glad you're here; I didn't know where I was going to buy my kids' school clothes this year.'" Darlene Hicks, a bank sales manager who works with a nonprofit that accepts unsold items donated through the store, says, "As a banker I can send people there and say, 'Hey, they've got nice dress clothes at a fraction of the cost.' They have been a phenomenal addition."

When Mike Patrick, 47, lost his job as a flight captain for DHL subsidiary Airborne Express in February, it was a chance for him and his wife, Connie, 44, to think hard about their dreams and take the first steps toward a life makeover. For several years the Patricks had wanted to start a nonprofit for disadvantaged youth that would merge Connie's love of animals with her experience as a teacher. But Mike's hours and $200,000-plus pay kept the goal at a distance. Now their newly opened Stillwater Stables builds leadership and self-esteem in 20 kids ages 6 to 18 through working with horses. "Nobody judges me; nobody says, 'Boy, she's hyper,'" says Mackenzie Kennedy, 14, on her fifth Saturday at the barn. "When I came here, I was really depressed. It helps me get through the week, because I know I'll be around some of the most awesome people in the world." Says Connie: "What was hopeless at first has become a positive."

Indeed, the spirit of helping is alive and well in Wilmington. For 17 years, as a package sorter for Airborne Express, Lisa Sword, 50, provided the primary income and insurance for herself and her welder husband, Dwaine, 50. She took voluntary severance in November 2008. Four months later her son Justin announced his out-of-town wedding for August. "I knew there was no way I could be there," she says. The local newspaper told Sword's story, and a reporter called to say an anonymous angel had pledged $400 to make her trip come true. "I just cried," Sword says. "It makes you think about giving instead of taking."

For Trevor Shoemaker, 53, director of the landmark Murphy Theatre on Main Street, helping means giving away unsold tickets to those he knows could use a boost. Despite his own business's taking a hit this year, Phil Swindler, 46, a third-generation co-owner of a family-run florist and nursery, agreed to cultivate crops for a garden overseen by Wilmington College to teach people to grow their own food. He organized free classes to instill optimism in green thumbs. "If you give people confidence," he says, "you've given them hope they can do something for themselves."

Residents are finding that just as bad things can have a ripple effect, so too can the good. "The more people who come in and buy things, the more it touches those who are selling things," says Eric Wogomen. "Some people think there's 'community' and then there's 'family.' We've seen we have a community family."

Dan Uetrecht hopes his great turkey giveaway—his truckload helped to feed 340 families—teaches the same, and not just to his three kids. "Unless you do it, it doesn't have the same impact," he says. "Everybody helps in tough times. It's the American heart."

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