Transcript: Gail Ruggles on how Vermont’s Senior Community Service Employment Program helped her re-enter the workforce
At age 59, Gail Ruggles was divorced, in debt, and working five part-time jobs while raising two teenagers on her own when she was introduced to Vermont’s Senior Community Service Employment Program. The SCSEP program trained older Americans like Ruggles and placed them in jobs with local non-profit organizations. Ruggles credited the SCSEP job training and employer incentive program for helping her land a full-time job at a growing medical research and development firm in Vermont.
U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
Hearing on the Recession and Older Americans
Oct. 18, 2011
Gail Ruggles, Vermont resident and former Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) participant
“Good morning and thank you for inviting me to testify. It’s a pretty important issue to me too.
“My name is Gail Ruggles, and I am 61 years old. I am currently the administrative assistant for Numia Medical Technology, which is a growing research and development firm in northeast Vermont.
“For the first time in many, many years I’m beginning to feel economically self-sufficient. Three years ago, not so pretty. My life was definitely a different story. I never planned to be broke. I never planned to be out of work. I’ve been gainfully employed since I was 16 years old, mostly in lower-level jobs.
“When I turned 50, I was divorced. I was raising a fifth and seventh grader on my own, and I decided that I’d like to be a better role model for them and do something better with my own life. I met with a financial aid rep at Lyndon State College. I went back to school. Took me a while but I graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies. I was 56 years old, and I was ready to get back into the working world full-time. But something weird happened in those five years. Somewhere along the line people started looking at me and saying this thing called “at your age.” It has this dirty, gritty feel like I was used up, like I was a has-been. I was still me.
“I was worried that going back to school hadn’t been such a good idea. I was deeper in debt, because even though I participated in work study, I had maxed out my student loans to help pay my monthly bills.
“I searched the papers for jobs, but when I saw something I considered answering, I’d stopped and think “Yeah, but who would want me at my age?”
“I lost sleep. I’d turn the thermostat down when we were cold. We ate cheaper and cheaper food. I told the kids sometimes that I wasn’t hungry so they’d eat enough. I gained weight from poor eating. I knew I looked bad. That made me feel bad. My chances of getting a job got worse. The worst thing was I felt like I was a failure in my kids’ eyes.
“Within six months of graduating, I was working five part-time jobs. I did substitute teaching whenever I was called. I picked up books from the town dump and sold them on Half.com. I brokered auto parts for a friend on e-Bay. I did freelance writing. And I did tax work in tax season. I didn’t know what else I could do.
“The slump in the economy had hurt me like it hurt so many others. My car was in its last legs. I was getting behind in my mortgage, and except for a very understanding banker, I was afraid of foreclosure. In three months, it would be spring time. Big deal. Then the electric company could shut me off for late payment. Once, I went to the local food pantry. A prominent lady from my town was checking off names, and I was so mortified, I took my bag of groceries, got in my car, and cried all the way home. I never went back.
“At this point, I was 59-and-a-half-years-old. I read and re-read my Social Security earning statement like it was the Holy Grail. All I want to do is to make it to 62 and pick up that little chunk of Social Security and combine it with all my five other jobs and make ends meet. I was afraid of what would happen to me if I couldn’t support – what would happen to my kids if I couldn’t support them. All I really wanted to do was to get them through school. I didn’t care what happened. I knew I needed help, but I had no idea where to get it.
“The turning point for me came in January of 2009. I went to a thrift store to get a winter coat, and I told the girl at the register that I was looking for work. I made a joke at being someone at my age, and she said, “How old are you?” I told her, and she handed me this brochure from Vermont Associates for Training and Development. The program sounded too good to be true, but I called for an appointment anyway.
“Gotta tell you, I don’t like public aid offices. I don’t like having to defend my life’s failures in exchange for handout. But the people at Vermont Associates were different. They really cared. They really wanted me to make a better life for myself. They took the time to explain to me the duality of Senior Community Service Employment Program SCSEP. They place senior workers in paid training positions in 501(c)3 organizations. First thing I thought, that was brilliant. Community people helping each other.
“I was assigned to train at the office of Clan of the Hawk, a little Native American non-profit group. This was a 20-year-old organization run entirely by volunteers. I set up their files. I put their finances in order. I started to catalogue their library museum holdings. Over the next few months, the chief of the Clan of the Hawks started to call me the “Clan Secretary.” I looked around and thought, “Hey, I am pretty good at this.” I told the Vermont Associates supervisor that I’d like to learn to write grants to help fund the Clan library. It was kind of weird, but we worked together to make it happen, and I took an amazing two-day grant writing workshop in Boston. It was a key addition to my resume.
“As part of the SCSEP program, Vermont Associates holds monthly training and employment meetings. The specialists come to these meetings to teach us how to rewrite our resumes for today’s employers – a really new skill. They taught us interviewing skills, how to create a portfolio. At one meeting, we were asked to make a list of skills that we had. I found out that I can do a lot of things, from sewing on a button to cleaning a septic tank. I realized that I had a lot of skills though that could be used in a real job situation.
“In early November, I was helping a friend deal with a tax issue that he incurred, and I met him once a week where he worked. One day, his boss let him use his office when he was out to lunch. I looked around, and I saw stacks of mail, piles of folders, and papers everywhere, and I thought, “Boy, this guy could use me.”
“With my training through SCSEP, I was confident that I knew how to take care of an office. After all, I was doing it for eight months. So I gathered my courage and asked for an interview with the owner of Numia. He did know he needed extra help, but he wasn’t really convinced that he needed to hire a new staff employee. But I had an ace up my sleeve called OJE. It’s a SCSEP employer incentive program and stands for “on-the-job experience.” As it turned out, the combination of skills that I had honed on my training and the OJE incentive together landed my job. Of course, it was up to me to keep it. But that was December of 2009. It’s October of 2011. I got a raise in January. I have insurance benefits. I have vacation time, and I’m investing in a 401(k).
“Being a participant in SCSEP through Vermont Associates gave me things welfare programs never could. It gave me occupational skills and special training to obtain real lasting employment. It gave me confidence in my abilities. Ultimately, it gave me the stepping stones to become economically self-sufficient. I’m not even thinking about collecting Social Security at 62 because I don’t have to. I’m actually building a stronger retirement. Vermont and SCSEP helped me turn my life around. It’s a program that works. Thank you.”
- Written testimony submitted by Gail Ruggles (PDF)
- Vermont Senior Community Services Employment Program
- U.S. Senate: Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging hearing on “The Recession and Older Americans: Where Do We Go From Here”
- Government Accountability Office: Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, U.S. Senate: Income Security – Older Adults and the 2007-2009 Recession (PDF)
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Sen. Bernie Sanders on the recession and older Americans
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Barbara Bovbjerg on the recession’s profound impact on older Americans
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Dr. Eric Kingson on cost of living adjustments for Social Security recipients
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Dr. Heidi Hartmann on growing reliance on Social Security by American seniors
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Dr. Sandra Nathan on the Older Americans Act reauthorization
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