(CNS?file photo)

RACINE — Cathy Morris was having an internal struggle.

In her mid-50s, Morris was laid off from her cleaning job after the company that employed her lost its contract with a group of local businesses. For several years, she has struggled to find work, but is at a point where she doesn’t know what to do or where to turn.

“It’s hard to make ends meet,” she said. “My family and friends help me, but it is a struggle because I don’t get unemployment anymore and I want to rely on myself – and not burden anyone else.”

Rodney Mastin is in a similar situation. Just 55, he was laid off eight months ago from his job as a forklift driver. While he currently receives unemployment, it isn’t enough money to support his wife and two children.

“I would like to remain in the field of driving a forklift and working in shipping and receiving,” he said. “It’s early yet though, and I am extremely hopeful about finding another job.”

Morris and Mastin found a glimmer of hope March 2, at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Racine. The Catholic Knights Branch 202-Racine and Racine County Workforce Development Center sponsored a job fair with more than 36 local employers and more than 200 job openings.

More than 1,000 job seekers attended the all-day fair that included seminars on Internet job searching, and one-on-one help from résumé doctors to help streamline résumés. For Halston Brown, who is re-entering the workforce after four years of caring for her dying mother, the résumé doctor was the most beneficial aspect of the event.

“I never knew until I was told that people get bored reading résumés,” she said. “I learned how to get my bullet points out and how to account for gaps in my employment.”

At age 50, Brown knows employers often seek a younger group from the job pool, but she hopes her work ethic and other strengths will overcome any age drawbacks.

For more information on employment assistance and other help, contact:

Workforce Development Center

Nationwide Resource List for Unemployment

Food Share/Medical/other Benefits

Angel Food Program

Job Center of Wisconsin

Guide to finding healthcare

United Way of Racine County

“My life has made so many changes, but I am a dedicated worker,” she said. “I was going to school for a counselor’s certificate, but I have to make ends meet, so I can’t do that right now. It’s really hard to find a good paying job in Racine with medical insurance and I have been to two job fairs already with no luck. This fair has so many more jobs and seems to have many more avenues to help, and I tell you, the résumé doctor was the best part of the day.”

The idea for the fair and food drive for the needy was the collaborative efforts of Hub Braun, president of Catholic Knights Branch 202 and Karen Wilkomm-Stiles, financial services representative for Catholic Knights.

“In addition to being an insurance company, we are also a fraternal organization,” said Wilkomm-Stiles. “We wanted to find a way to give back to the community and raise money for those in need. We thought a job fair and food drive would be a good way to do that.”

Braun agreed, and contacted friends through Workforce Development who arranged to contact prospective employers and organize the fair, while Catholic Knights would provide volunteers, food, as well as donate up to $500 in matching funds to the Racine County Food Bank.

“As a fraternal organization, we want to help our members and the community and all of this fell into place,” said Braun. “Our hearts went out to the people who need work. You know, you can give food and money to help, but if you can find a job for them, it means just so much more.”

As the Business Service Team Leader of Racine County Workforce Development, Jane Kurylo has hosted many job fairs in recent months, but acknowledged this one was different.

“We have had such a great response from employers and that is quite unusual,” she said. “We also have more resource tables to help people. Most job fairs have maybe six employers in specific fields like education or health care; this fair has a very wide variety.”

Historically, job fairs appeal to the recent college graduates or those in their mid-30s seeking a career change. Not so these days, noted Kurylo.

“We are seeing all ages coming here, from first timers to those with lots of experience,” she said. “We are also seeing quite a few retirees because of poor 401K returns. The job market is tough, but I am seeing more jobs opening up lately, so I think we are headed in the right direction.”

More than 30 volunteers, including 20 from Catholic Knights, 10 from St. Paul the Apostle, and one from St. Edward welcomed visitors, served food to the employers, answered questions and collected donations for the food drive.

Most surprising to Wilkomm-Stiles was the generosity of those out of work who donated food that far exceeded anyone’s expectations.

“I cannot believe this,” she exclaimed. “The barrels are overflowing – we had to get more boxes to hold all of the donations. Everyone here is excited and I think it is really touching that these people who are so down on their luck have brought in food and cash donations to help others. I think it means something for them to be able to help others going through a tough time, too – and it makes you feel better, too.”

According to Wilkomm-Stiles, the job fair has already produced results. One attendee from Salem applied for a job in health care at the fair, and three days later, he was offered the job.

Another attendee in his 50s received help refining his résumé and now he has two interviews lined up.

She said the workforce development has received many positive comments from employers and those who attended the fair.

It also brought in 1,060 pounds of donated food and $544 for the Racine County Food Bank.