SOUTHWEST FLORIDA: Sign of the times -- need for ministry to the unemployed grows

January 4, 2011

Lee County, Florida, has had its share of tough times. Having gained notoriety in 2009 as the foreclosure capital of the nation, its unemployment rate continues to hover around 13 percent, far above the national average.

As the ranks of the unemployed struggle to make ends meet, two Fort Myers churches are offering spiritual comfort -- as well as some practical advice -- to some of the nearly 35,000 people in the area looking for a job.

The Unemployed Support Group meets twice a month at St. Hilary's Episcopal Church, where Deacon Diane Millott and her husband, Bob, who is a deacon at nearby St. Luke's Episcopal Church, run the program that offers scriptural relevance and prayer support along with a practical presentation at each meeting.

Pat Magee came to his first meeting in early December. He lost his job as a high school history teacher more than a year ago. He says he was let go after two hip replacements slowed him down to the point that the school district told him he could no longer keep up with his students. He's now preparing for a position in the insurance field but will need additional training. "I've been studying for my license."

The first few months without work were tough. "It was like 90 days in the desert. I felt alone, bewildered," he said. "You really find out who your friends are."

Magee says his faith has been tested and strengthened. "It's all going to be all right. It's just going to be in His time," Magee said.

His wife works in health care and has picked up extra work, but money is tight, particularly as the holidays approached. "How do you tell your 6-year-old that Santa Claus won't come?"

The Millotts say a workshop at the 2009 diocesan convention convinced them to start this ministry in Lee County. Diane said she had just been assigned to St. Hilary's and was looking for a service project. After the workshop, they both knew it was a perfect fit. "I said, man, that's it," Diane recalled. "It just hit us," Bob added.

"We devised a plan to do a joint parish [project] so we'd have the people resources to do it," Diane said.

When they approached the Rev. Phillip Read at St. Luke's and the Rev. Bob Hennagin at St. Hilary's, both rectors insisted that it be unique, offering the spiritual support that secular groups could not.

Each meeting at St. Hilary's begins with prayer. "We try to make something in the Bible relevant to what they're going through," Diane said, adding that a member of the congregation prays for each attendee by name, every day.

The Millotts say so far, people's backgrounds run the gamut, from laid-off CPAs to plumbers to dishwashers. On one recent evening in December, about a dozen people showed up to the meeting at St. Hilary's. Most were referred by Hanna House, an emergency and transitional shelter for the homeless in Fort Myers. While all were eager to add their names to a prayer list, few wanted to be named for this article.

One woman was working part-time as a dishwasher but was looking for more. Another, with her 1-month-old daughter in her arms, said she quit her office job when she was pregnant but now needs to go back to work. She'd like to do pool cleaning work. "Or waitressing. Anything, really," she said.

Several were living on Social Security disability payments and expressed fears their possibilities were limited. One man with construction experience told the group he had just found part-time work at a home improvement store. "I'd rather be swinging a hammer to tell you the truth, but there's nothing out there."

People from both parishes and the community at large have become involved in the group by sharing their own expertise during the meetings. Retired teacher Sally Jane from St. Hilary's offers to help anyone create or polish their resume and also does a formal presentation on resumes for the group every other month or so. Diane Millott leads presentations on how to do well during job interviews. The Millotts also draw from the community, finding entrepreneurs and businessmen to speak to the group. Bob Millott also sends out a weekly e-mail filled with job leads to participants.

On this evening in early December, Betsy Hopkins, a former missionary who has started her own consulting and life-coaching business in Fort Myers called Global SKILLs, gave a short presentation on setting goals and creating a vision to attain them.

She told participants not to limit themselves to jobs or careers they've already had, but to think about how the skills they have can be applied in new career fields.

Diane Millott said the group has already had a few success stories and is hoping to keep in touch with attendees who have found jobs.

Magee says he thinks the group will be very helpful to him as he continues to search for full-time work. "It keeps you accountable," he said. "It keeps you on task."

— For more information on this ministry, contact Deacon Bob Millott at [email protected], or call St. Hilary's Episcopal Church at 239-936-1000.