In Chester County, Joseph's People throws a 'company picnic' for the jobless

Cheryl Spaulding, who heads Joseph's People, says those who have been laid off often feel out of touch, depressed, and alone.
Cheryl Spaulding, who heads Joseph's People, says those who have been laid off often feel out of touch, depressed, and alone.
Posted: July 15, 2010

Ron Preston mulled over his choices - hot or sweet Italian sausage.

He picked the hot sausage.

"You're a hot man," joked Judy McFadden, sporting her Queen of the Kitchen apron as she served him sausage.

"I bet you say that to all the gentlemen," he laughed.

The lame jokes, the convivial chatter, the scattered beers, the prizes for the children, the satisfying scent of hamburgers, hot dogs, and sausages cooked over a grill in the parking lot:

The party Tuesday could have been any company picnic anywhere.

"But these people aren't going to any company picnics," said Cheryl Spaulding of Downingtown, who presides over a network of 10 church-based support groups for the unemployed.

Out of work, they are often out of touch, depressed, and alone, she said.

That is why, each summer, Joseph's People holds its equivalent of a company picnic - this time in the parking lot of the founding church, St. Joseph's Church in Downingtown. Nationally, there are nearly 15 million unemployed, including 19,600 in Chester County.

"It's important to stay engaged," said Preston, whose occupational-safety-consulting business has slowed enough to put him in the ranks of the unemployed. "It's really easy to isolate yourself, if you aren't feeling good about your life and your situation."

Most of the Joseph's People meetings are about job searches - how to network, how to write a resumé.

But the picnic is different.

"It's a time to not have to think about the dreary side," said Steven Bailey of Downingtown, busy manning the grill in hazy, post-rainstorm humidity. Bailey has been working temporary accounting jobs since being laid off in January 2009.

It had been his second layoff in the decade, the first in 2005 after 26 years at the same company.

"That's one of the things I missed the most, the friendships. When I lost my first job, I lost my family," he said, referring to the bonds he forged with his coworkers.

Those bonds are hard to keep, said Dennis Cheek of Kennett Square, a nonprofit executive who has been laid off for more than a year.

"Part of it is awkwardness," he said. "The person who is still employed doesn't know what to say. They know, at the end of the day, it could have just as easily been them" getting the pink slip.

Over dessert, Joseph Lucci, an engineering technician from West Brandywine Township, reminisced about a company party thrown by his former employer. "There were three caterers," he marveled. Lucci was laid off in June 2009.

His unemployment benefits have ended, and although his wife has a job, he feels guilty that he cannot help his son with college expenses.

"It gets you right here," he said, twisting his fist into a knot near his heart. The picnic "definitely helps you forget about your problems and relieve your anxieties."

Chasing his 16-month-old granddaughter around, Louis Larkins, who was laid off four years ago at age 61, got right to the point - "free dinner." He, his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, and granddaughter live together in East Fallowfield Township, and none of them has a full-time job. Many of those who attended gladly took leftovers and donated food home.

The irony of the event was not lost on McFadden. A longtime volunteer for Joseph's People, she was laid off from her customer-service job June 28. The word had passed fast, and the hugs were quick and plentiful.

"It's a good group," said McFadden of Glenmoore. "I've always liked helping them before. Now they are going to have to help me."


Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

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