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Seek Out Help If You Need It

Published 11/06/2011
The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC

Bridgette A. Lacy writes about resources for the unemployed twice a month.

Life's emergencies can be tough when you are already counting your pennies to pay the mortgage and utilities -- and keep your hair done. Unfortunately, unemployment doesn't shield you from the other challenges of life.

Since my last column, my stepfather died and my car's engine blew. Proof yet again that life does not stop just because you've lost your job.

Your emergencies may be an illness, storm damage or a broken tooth. But whatever problem arises, you'll have to continue to "actively seek employment" and find a way to keep all the bills paid.

When you don't have money, this is when you have to rely on other resources. For me, that's prayer and yoga. Both of which give me the time I need to think through my problems.

Melissa Malueg, a life coach in Raleigh, said it's easy to focus on all the things you don't have when a crisis presents itself. You start thinking maybe I wasn't good enough, and that's why I lost my job. You concentrate on what you lack. "When we are focused on what we don't have, we block ourselves from seeing the things we do have," she says.

"It comes down to what resources are available to me," Malueg says. "What is available to me? Who is rooting for me? Who are my encouragers?

If you look around, you'll find many resources.

Annette Harlow, a volunteer at financial guru Clark Howard's Consumer Action Center in Atlanta, said when an emergency hits, ask yourself, "Is there anybody who can help for free? Is there a free clinic?"

Many colleges with dental programs offer discounted dental work. Some doctors have free samples of expensive medicine. Be creative in your problem solving.

Harlow says there are organizations set up to help members of special groups, such as retired military.

Be honest about your situation. Many people will help if you ask them. "Putting your head in the sand is the worst thing," Harlow said.

She also said it's important to think of how you can help yourself. For instance, consider what you can sell. "Think outside the box," Harlow says. "Do I have furniture, electronics or jewelry I can sell to help me out of this situation? Do I have a coin collection I can sell?"

Harlow also likes to refer people to United Way 211. It's a comprehensive community resource and referral line with information on local nonprofits that provide rent or mortgage assistance, food, shelter, free medical clinics, family resource centers, quality child care and help with transportation.

Modest needs

Another resource for those in emergency situations is the Modest Needs Foundation.

Keith Taylor, president and founder of Modest Needs, started the New York foundation in 2002. Taylor, a college professor, started it as a way of paying tribute to the people who had helped him.

Taylor said he got the idea from something that happened to him when he was in graduate school. He was married with a young child and working as a movie theater projectionist while going to school.

One day the timing belt on his car broke and he had to choose between the $500 car repair and paying rent. He chose the car and then found himself days away from eviction.

"I didn't qualify for any help," he says. He wore his impending worry on his face. His boss asked what was wrong and Taylor told him. The next day, his boss left a check made out to the landlord.

"I have never forgotten that," Taylor says.

"You don't have to be rich to change someone else's life," he says. Most of his individual donors give $10 to $30. "A lot of regular people are doing this work," he says.

Taylor sees his foundation as "a forum for people to be kind to each other. ... The goal is to keep people from needing long-term assistance from a federal agency."

Modest Needs normally pays $750 to $1,000 directly to the vendor. "The question is," he said, "if we step in and help them with this one emergency, will they be able to move forward generally on their own?"

Don't get down

The timing of several big events at once can overwhelm you. Try not to flinch.

The day before my drive to Virginia for my stepfather's funeral, I dropped my car off at the auto shop for regular maintenance.

The mechanic said I needed a "rear main seal," an "air intake tube" and a "valve cover gasket." That was going to run about $900. The valve cover job was still under warranty from a previous replacement. The repairs would take all day.

But when the shop manager picked me up, he told me an engine rod had blown while the car was being test-driven. He loaned me the owner's Lexus so I could get to the funeral.

The whole time I was in Virginia, I was processing the car issue and my options. I can't afford a new car, and I can't get a car loan without a job. I called the shop to see what I could work out, reminding the owner I had been a loyal customer for a decade and had recommended friends.

He told me would donate the labor, but the engine would be $1,700 in addition to the original $900, pointing out that he had workers to pay.

This is when my reporting instincts kicked in. I called Ray Magliozzi, the younger of the two "Tappet Brothers" on NPR's show "Car Talk."

"It seems awfully suspicious that this happened the day of the repair," he said. Someone probably drained the oil and forgot to put it in during the rear main repair, he said.

He said at the least I should have been offered a "used engine about the same mileage as the original one and labor."

And he pointed out that auto shops have insurance to take care of mistakes that inevitably happen.

The day after the funeral, I called the shop and asked for a copy of the invoice. I wanted to see all the charges in writing. I never received the invoice via email. But when I called to pick up the car, I was told there would be "no charge" for the engine, only the original work.

The lesson here: It's easy to feel discouraged when you're unemployed, but it's important to get all the facts and stand up for yourself.

Call an expert, look for information online, and consult with people you trust. And, if possible, sleep on your decision.

Prayer and yoga

The next day, I went to my yoga class with Susan Kilmon at Sertoma Arts Center. Her class brings much-needed calm. She always advises, be "gentle with ourselves" and leave out "the judgments" we often make, asking ourselves, "Could I have done this better? Was it my fault?"

Kilmon and her husband, Mike, have experienced unemployment. He lost his job and was out of work for a few months in 2004 and for 18 months in 2009.

She prayed daily. She called out mantras for abundance. They practiced yoga as a couple every Sunday. They had picnic lunches in the park. They drew closer to each other and their spiritual resources.

"We had a lot of bills, and we were struggling," she said, "but everything seemed to work."

Mike Kilmon, a computer tech, now has a new job.

Through the support of friends and staying positive, they made it through. So did I. And so can you.