Staff Photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Mary Bennett laughs as she talks to the Times-Free Press at her home in Alton Park. Bennett received money from the Neediest Cases Fund last year to help pay her water bill.
Mary Bennett has been sewing since she was a little girl.
When she was 9 years old, she started sewing her dolls' clothes by hand and, when she got to high school, she took up tailoring.
On and off she was a sewing machine operator at different local factories for 35 years until the last plant shut down in November 2008. At 56, she found herself without a job and without many prospects of finding one.
"I almost had a nervous breakdown," Bennett recalled during a recent interview in her Alton Park home. "They shut it down just like that."
She has gone to the Tennessee Career Center and has been filling out applications, but so far she hasn't found anything.
"They say you can get a degree to do something else but at 56 my mind doesn't stay focused," said the Chattanooga native. "I would love to go back to school."
She also has health problems, including carpal tunnel syndrome and a protruding disc in her back, she said.
Last month, she called United Way's 211 — an information and referral service to community programs — to seek assistance to pay her water bill.
With just four days remaining before her water was scheduled to be shut off, the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults pledged $98.99 from the Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund to allow Bennett to keep the water on.
If it hadn't been for that, she said, she would have had to stay with one of her children, who also are struggling.
Since she was laid off two years ago, Bennett has been living off unemployment benefits and with the help of her oldest son, but the 35-year-old also lost his job at a brick factory.
About 18,000 jobs in manufacturing, transportation and construction were lost in Hamilton County from 2001 through 2009, according to a new economic study by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.
"I've worked all my life and this is the hardest I've ever had," said Bennett, sitting in the living room of the house she bought 16 years ago as a single mother, fulfilling the American Dream and making it possible for her to move out of the housing projects.
The Neediest Cases Fund is a resource to help people overcome a particular challenge, said Sandra Hollett, chief executive officer for the Partnership.
"We want this to be a step in their journey and their journey is to self-sufficiency," she said. "Nobody wants to have to ask someone else for help."
Bennett said she has been very blessed.
"It's a terrible feeling [to lose your job]," she said, her eyes tearing up. "But I'm not giving up."
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...