WARE, Mass. — People with fewer and fewer places to even put in job applications often find themselves just off Route 9, walking up the chipped cement steps of Jubilee Cupboard. It’s a food pantry run by Trinity Episcopal Church.
Volunteer manager Cheryl Vaugh says although demand is up and donations are down, “more people are having to hang on and use this longer. It’s not just something they can use for a little bit and then they are back on their feet.”
Vaugh sits at a desk just inside the screen door of the food pantry. She pulls an index card out of a metal box as Jennifer Jerome, a young woman with a dark ponytail, steps quietly to the head of the line.
A teenager with orange hair tied back in a red ribbon rolls a squeaky cart with just under 30 pounds of canned goods, cereal, milk, juice, bread and two fresh tomatoes to the desk.
“OK, Jennifer,” Vaugh says, “you’re all set. You signed, you’re good, thank you.”
Jennifer is on disability, for depression, and doesn’t work. But she says her husband does. “He just got a job, at MacDonald’s, but it’s a job.”
“How long was your husband out of work?” I ask. “A year,” she says. “He had a good job. He was the head cook at Friendly’s, he was making good money and then they cut all hours down to two hours so he quit. Our taxes finally ran out so, you know, he got a job.”
By taxes, Jennifer means money the federal government returned to her husband as an earned income tax credit. She heaves her cardboard box of food off the cart and the next client steps to the desk.
“Hey, how you doing?” Gloria LeBlanc greets Vaugh with a toothless full-face grin. Gloria, who is legally blind, is at Jubliee with her husband, daughter and a friend whose utilities are shut off.
“She doesn’t have any hot water to take a bath or nothing,” says Gloria. “They come over to my house. We do a lot of crying. At least we have money coming in, at least we can work on our bills but we’re behind. You can’t, you just can’t make it, but….” Gloria shrugs.
“What keeps you going Gloria?” I ask. “My faith in God,” she says. “That’s the only thing any of us have. I don’t have nowhere to move, I don’t have no money to move. We’re stuck.”
Still Gloria says she feels blessed. Her husband Bob LeBlanc has a job with one of the largest employers in town.
“I love Walmart,” Bob says. “The only complaint I got is that I’m only working 35 hours right now. It’s just hard to make it.”
“I forgot to tell you,” Gloria jumps in. “I have my granddaughter, great grandbaby and boyfriend in there with me, so there’s five of us.”
“Five of you in the house?” I confirm.
“Yes,” Gloria says, “and they’re not working.”
“Well, so that’s a lot of pressure, huh?” I ask.
“Yeah, yeah, it is,” says Bob, stooping to pack a baby stroller he brought with bags of food. He turns to look for Gloria. She’s halfway up the block.
“Hold on, Gloria,” Bob yells after her.
I trail after Bob, Gloria, one daughter, a granddaughter and two strollers loaded with canned goods the families hope will last one week. Bob has more to say about the pressure he’s under.
“Poverty level is what, about $20,000?” Bob’s anger is rising now. “I make below, you know,” he sputters, “and nobody cares, nobody cares. I’m not saying that I should turn around and get something for nothing. I’ll work, and I’m a damn hard worker but I’m just not making it. Now we gotta pay taxes, taxes, taxes.”
Bob hurries home to get ready for work. He walks the three miles to and from Walmart when he can’t find a ride. There are no buses or taxis in Ware.
I leave Bob, Gloria and Barb and head back to Jubilee Cupboard.
“Hey, that’s my ride,” laughs Jay Supka as a battered blue sedan with a failing muffler roars by.
Jay is picking up food for himself and a friend but can’t carry all the bags on his only means of transportation, a maroon 10-speed with racing handlebars.
“I used to work in all these mills, Berkshire Blanket, Ware Shoe, they’re all closed down. There was countless jobs,” recalls Jay.
Jay works, occasionally, when his brother needs help on a carpentry job. He heads into the food pantry for his second load of groceries.
“OK, Fraya, you can bring it (Jay’s box) back,” Vaugh says. “People who worked half your life and I’m living in a gazebo,” Jay throws up his hands. “What’s going to happen?”
Although Jay is homeless and has little work, it’s hard to leave his hometown.
“Ware’s a good town, I love the town,” he says. “I don’t want to move out.” Jay’s eyes glaze over as he gazes across the town. “Everyone knows me here.”
Barbie Thresher-Morrison pulls open plastic bags. “I got some fruits and veggies, cereal, bread, some pasta, pickles, milk…” her voice fades.
Barbie and her two children were one day away from becoming homeless themselves last January when a subsidized apartment opened up. She had more work then.
“I was working three jobs,” Barbie says. “People don’t give you many hours because nobody wants to have to pay insurance. I ended up losing two jobs ’cause there wasn’t enough hours for everybody.”
Barbie pampers an old family van so she can hold on to two shifts a week at a restaurant in neighboring West Brookfield.
“I went to school for nails, hairdressing, I waitress and I bartend,” she says. “I’m 41. I’m getting old. I gotta find something else to do. But I can’t go back to school ’cause you have kids. That’s what I try to tell my kids. ‘Look at Mom, I work three jobs, I bust my butt, I hardly get to see you guys, go to school and do the best you can and become something.’ ”
“Things could be worse, you know,” Barbie says, nodding at a young woman in the front seat of her car. “I mean, she has nowhere to go. I’m letting her stay with me.”
“Who’s that?” I ask.
“She’s one of my friends, yeah. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have my kids, I don’t know where I would be. I know this doesn’t matter to you, but my boy, his favorite song is “You are My Sunshine.” We sing it all the time and they are, they are my sunshine. They’re amazing.”
Barbie heads home to make her daughter’s favorite, a pickle sandwich. Lucky, she got the cupboard’s last jar as well as the last of the milk, bread and fresh tomatoes.