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Profile in Community Courage: IL Town Faces Downturn With Grit

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One Illinois town shows how faith, hope and charity kept their community alive.

On his radio and television programs, Glenn Beck talks a lot about the importance of Faith, Hope and Charity and their strong influence on our nation's history. Though some may have strayed from these principles, they are still engrained in many small towns across the country. One such town today is Herrin, Illinois. USA Today highlighted this community's determination today:

Mayor Vic Ritter learned on a rainy morning in May 2006 that the Maytag plant here was going to close, eliminating almost 1,000 jobs. "It was like somebody had hit me in the stomach as hard as they could," he recalls. "I thought we were done. Herrin's done."

He imagined people moving away, a dwindling tax base and declining school enrollment in this southern Illinois town of 12,450 with a bustling downtown, a coal-mining history and a close-knit population of European immigrants' descendants.

After news broke that the town would lose its single biggest employer, city leaders, area colleges and Man-Tra-Con Corp., a nonprofit group that administers state and federal job-search career-development programs set to work in helping people find work.  The Maytag employees received tutoring help and internships and Man-Tra-Con -- a shortened version of "management, training and consulting" -- helped them enroll in school and apply for jobs.

The response "had to be more than just retraining," Man-Tra-Con CEO Kathy Lively said.  "We knew that if we didn't do more, we could lose our town."

This devastating thought threw the whole community into action:

Displaced workers got free tax preparation, insurance help and counseling. Private donations were used to buy emergency gift cards for groceries and gas. Volunteers gave rides to classes and job interviews. Small businesses hired people they didn't really need and stores wrote off workers' debts. Man-Tra-Con gave police cards with staffers' phone numbers to call if Maytag workers got in trouble or seemed suicidal.

There were weekly "job club" sessions in which workers could compare notes and get advice, a health fair and investment planning sessions. Workers got lessons in using computers, writing résumés and study skills. John A. Logan College, a two-year school, set up a lounge and computer lab where Maytag workers could work and relax between classes. People who were headed to job interviews got haircuts and manicures. Those who went back to school got supplies. Everything was free.

Giant silver ribbons were hung on trees and the doors of homes and stores, and lapel-size silver-ribbon pins were distributed around town. The message: "Every cloud has a silver lining."

Stephen Turner, 44, put in eight years at the Maytag plant, working his way up from the maintenance crew to the assembly line.  On the day the plant announced it was closing, Turner went to Man-Tra-Con.  He applied for retraining assistance and later enrolled in a tool-and-die-making course.  After completing his associate's degree and looking for work, he was hired in July by a local VA hospital.

He credits his faith and the community's support for helping him get through tough times. "Everybody was very sympathetic," he said.

Angela Wagner, 43, said the community helped her "make a bad situation into good."  Wagner had worked at Maytag for 18 years and her husband, Scott, 38, had worked there for seven.  After they lost their jobs, both went back to school with the community's support.  Wagner now works as a massage therapist in a chiropractor's office and her husband found work in another local plant.

"Herrin seems to stick together," Wagner said. "We got everything we needed to help us get through the transition."

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