Making it, one check at a time: Chattanooga area woman subject of HBO documentary

Making it, one check at a time: Chattanooga area woman subject of HBO documentary

March 5th, 2014 by Shelly Bradbury in Local Regional News


• What: Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert

• When it airs: March 17 at 9 p.m. on HBO

• If you miss it: The documentary will also be available free at, and on YouTube between March 17 and March 24.

• For more information:

Source: HBO


• One in three women in America is living in poverty or teetering on the brink of poverty.

• Women make up nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers.

• More than half of babies born to women ages 30 and younger are born to unmarried mothers.

• One in five American families has a homemaker mom and working dad.

Source: The Shriver Report: A Women's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink

Katrina Gilbert, a Chattanooga-native and single mom, poses for a portrait at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium in Chattanooga on Tuesday. A new HBO documentary called "Paycheck to Paycheck: the Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert" follows Gilbert through a year of her life as she struggles to make ends meet.

Katrina Gilbert, a Chattanooga-native and single mom, poses...

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

Tuesday was a homecoming of sorts for 30-year-old Katrina Gilbert.

The Chickamauga, Ga., native walked the stage at Chattanooga's Memorial Auditorium 13 years ago to claim her high school diploma from Rossville's Ridgeland High School. And Tuesday, she returned.

She sat in the same auditorium, this time with her three kids -- daughters in sparkly purple and pink dresses and son in a suit -- and watched an HBO documentary that was all about her. About her life. Her struggles. Her triumphs.

"It tears me up," she said. "Because sometimes when you're struggling so hard, you're a single mom and you think 'I'm not doing a good job raising my kids.' But then someone says, 'look what you've done, you've done everything for these children and you're a great mom' -- sometimes you just need someone to open your eyes. And that's what this film did. It opened my eyes and let me see into my own life. I am a good mom."

Gilbert is the subject in the HBO documentary, "Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert," which will air on HBO on March 17. A pair of Emmy award-winning producers followed Gilbert and her family for almost a year, capturing the clan's ups and downs in about 150 hours of footage across 60 days of shooting.

The 75-minute film premiered to an invitation-only audience Tuesday night.

Gilbert lives in Ooltewah, works as a certified nursing assistant at an extended-care facility and makes $9.49 an hour. She was married for 10 years before separating and becoming a single mom. Now she barely scrapes by financially, raising her 8- and 6-year-old daughters and 4-year-old son alone.

Gilbert, wearing a long black dress and sparkly necklace, rode in a limo for the first time Tuesday, then spent an hour on HBO's red carpet, posing for cameras and giving interviews. She posed with Mayor Andy Berke for a few clicks, then dashed away for a quick drink of water.

"I don't know what I expected," she said. "I'm excited. A little nervous. Sometimes I feel like crying. But happy tears."

A few minutes later Gilbert was shown on the big screen in scrubs, changing sheets and diapers, pushing wheelchairs and feeding the elderly residents she cares for. The film shows her daily trips to the Chambliss Center for Children to pick up and drop off her kids, the tough decision to sell the family's puppy and dozens of other day-by-day choices that affect whether the household stays afloat.

Well-known journalist Maria Shriver is the film's executive producer, and the documentary is related to The Shriver Report, part of the nonprofit A Women's Nation. The massive report, released in January, found that about one-third of American women -- 42 million -- live in or on the brink of poverty. The study explores both the forces that push women into poverty and the forces that can pull women away from the brink.

While Shriver put together a sweeping national report chock full of statistics, facts and big-picture analysis, the documentary focused on the much smaller story of one woman, one year, said Shari Cookson, a producer and director. She and fellow producer and director Nick Doob started filming in November 2012 and finished in August 2013.

The film and report complement each other well, she said, but not in the way she and Doob expected.

"We set out to do a film about poverty, but what does poverty look like?" she said. "It's not like you turned the camera on and you saw poverty with a capital P. You saw a single mother with three kids struggling to make ends meet. But it wasn't that big dramatic poverty that somebody might expect to see. Here's a woman, she's working full time. We think, 'Wow, this is the face of poverty, but this is a person who's working.' It was that concept of a working poor person that we found very powerful."

During the film, Gilbert applied at Dalton State and said she hopes to eventually start a career in marketing or advertising. She never expected to be featured in the documentary, but said the film has opened up opportunities she'd never have had without it.

Like meeting President Barack Obama.

She visited the White House on Feb. 12, the day Obama signed a bill raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour starting in 2015.

"It was amazing," she said. "He's a laid-back, easy-going man. It was great."

But that's not the most important opportunity she's received from the film. The most important opportunity was a chance to tell her story, and hopefully, inspire other single moms, she said.

"You see struggles and you see funny moments, happy moments, sad moments," she said of the film. "I'm a single mom, going back to school, with a job. You can do it. Even though you're alone, you can do it. I just want to inspire somebody."

Especially her kids. Brooklynn, Lydia and Trent.

"I just hope that they can grow up and be like, 'That's my mom, look at everything she did for me,' she said. "And just be proud of me."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or