It took Pat Gaston a half-century to find the job she always wanted. Now the grandmother of six might never retire.
Walk with Gaston, 61, through the skilled nursing unit at Park Pointe Village, and it's easy to forget she's actually working. She waves to ladies getting their hair done in the salon. She checks on the flower pots she brought in to add some color to the patio.
Then she returns to her post as a secretary at the main desk, where nurses are waiting to say hello and see how she's doing.
"She doesn't view it as a job," said Christy Case, the complex's assistant nursing director. "She views it as her ministry to other people."
But is hasn't always been this way for Gaston.
As Americans commemorate Labor Day today, many people find themselves out of work, the victims of a weak economy and seemingly endless job cuts that have affected a slew of industries. Unemployment rates are on the rise statewide and locally. York County's unemployment rate increased to 6.8 percent in July, while Chester County's rose to 11.8 percent. One major Charlotte-area employer, Wachovia, recently announced it would eliminate more than 10,000 positions, including around 7,000 layoffs.
For many in today's work force, the uncertainty of the future dominates their thoughts.
Gaston once knew that uncertainty.
For more than 34 years, she worked at the machines inside the Celanese plant, spinning yarn onto giant aluminum spools to make it ready for weaving.
One day, the supervisors called employees into a meeting. The only job she ever had, the one she started the day after her graduation from Rock Hill High School in 1967, was ending.
"They gave me credit for 35 when I left," she said. "Well, I didn't leave. They shut down."
At 53, Gaston found herself jobless for the first time, with no vocational skills and little idea where to turn. That's when her life took an unexpected twist and she learned that being laid off doesn't have to mean defeat.
Gaston learned about worker retraining offered to laid-off textile workers under the NAFTA program. Without paying a dime, she could attend two years of classes at York Technical College and learn how to work in a medical office, where she could be surrounded by people.
"When you stand there and look at machines all day, it just kind of takes the life out of you," said her youngest daughter, Lisa Sheppard of Fort Mill. "It's a totally different feeling to be able to associate with people instead of standing there inside four walls."
So Gaston moved from the textile plant to a classroom filled with young adults half her age. Suddenly faced with homework and exams, she leaned on her instructors for extra help.
"Many times I would find her here at all hours of the day," said professor Rachel Cook. "She was not one of these that just went to class and went home. She knew that she had to spend the extra time in order to learn."
In two years of classes on English composition, math and medical transcription, Gaston missed one day -- to attend her father's funeral. She finished with a 3.4 grade point average.
When it came time to search for a job, Gaston found Park Pointe through a temporary employment office. Her first thought after visiting: "It was just the most beautiful place."
It's stayed that way ever since. In between phone calls and office tasks one afternoon last week, Gaston reflected on the blessings of life after textiles: "I just turned 61," she said. "And I got the job I always wanted."