Rebecca Gray and the Hackney family have never met.
Gray, a Fort Mill resident, is a single mother of two. Paul and Susan Hackney of Tega Cay are married with two children. Their backgrounds are different, but they all are living the same night nightmare: Unemployment.
All were laid off because of the devastated economy. For months, they've been job hunting with no success.
Whether it's a friend or neighbor, it's a story told over and over again.
Over the next three weeks, we will introduce you to these township residents and update their efforts to find employment.
Part I of a three-part series
Rebecca Gray has gone through one life change after another since losing her job.
First, the 24-year-old had to deal with the emotions that came with getting laid off for the first time. Then, seven months pregnant, she separated from her husband.
With no child support and her financial security gone, Gray had to move in with her mother in Fort Mill.
Sixteen months after leaving Ashley Furniture in Matthews, N.C., the mother of two finds her unemployment benefits are about to run out in the next month and finding a job is nearly impossible.
She's not alone, with York County's unemployment rate hitting 9.9 percent, a record in nearly three decades.
The Rock Hill Work Force Center is swamped with jobless claims, as is the Fort Mill Care Center, which is helping a growing list of people who are left with nowhere else to turn.
"I'm just praying I find a job before the money runs out," says Gray, who has 8-month-old Colin and 3-year-old Cadence to raise. "It's stressful. You can't imagine how stressful it has been."
Gray's main financial obligations are a car loan, car insurance and a cell phone bill. Once the money stops coming, the thought of losing her car makes her nervous because without it, "I would feel stuck." If she had to, the cell phone would go first. She's already cutting back on spending and eating out.
Gray calls her mother, Ruth, "her crutch" - providing her with a roof, food, love and support. Gray says she helps her mother by cooking and cleaning.
"I don't know what I'd do without her. Emotionally, she has been there for me during all the heartaches. She always gives me a shoulder to cry on," Gray says.
Her mother, who has worked for a medical supply company for 25 years, says the ordeal has brought them closer together and is happy to help.
"Knowing that she is raising these kids by herself is difficult," Ruth says. "She's hurting emotionally.
"It (unemployment) doesn't really impact you until it comes home."
Gray doesn't have to look at news headlines to see the economy's impact -- four of her friends also lost their jobs in a variety of fields, including accounting, manufacturing and retail.
Gray has been collecting about $225 a week in unemployment, about $100 less than she was making at Ashley Furniture in customer service. Four weeks pregnant, Rebecca says she was called into a manager's office on Oct. 30, 2007, for a meeting. Fearing she was "in trouble" for something, Gray found out instead she was losing her job because of a decline in sales, she says.
"If they hadn't laid me off, I would probably still be working there today," she says. "It was shocking. I was a hard worker."
The job search
Without childcare during the day, Gray's job search has been limited to the Internet. Her frustrations echo what many unemployed local residents says - calls and e-mails don't get returned.
"It gets annoying. You're filling out the same info over and over again," says Gray, who spends about 10 hours a week searching on the Internet. "Normally, in the past, I could find a job with a snap of a finger."
And when she places a call, she wonders if it's worth the effort knowing businesses are getting bombarded with calls.
"I feel like I'm wasting my time because I know what they're going to say," Gray says.
For now, Gray is hoping to land a position as a receptionist, in retail or in the restaurant industry as a server, where she has experience. She hopes to go to school at York Technical College to get an associate's degree. Her dream job is becoming a computer programmer.
"I have always been good with computers, making programs and I know a little bit of HTML," Gray says.
Her mom, Ruth, knows there are brighter days ahead.
"She has dreams and hopes," her mom says. "She tries and continues to try. I'm very optimistic. We're not in an endless tunnel."
Gray says the best therapy while unemployed comes from her children.
"Waking up and seeing my children smile everyday keeps me going," she says.
Far from alone
What keeps Annie Reid going every day is knowing there are so many people in dire straights and in need of help. Reid is area director for the Rock Hill Work Force Center, where people are lined up bright and early every day now. It's the worst on Mondays and Tuesdays, she says, thanks to York County's 9.9 percent unemployment rate, the 28th highest in the state.
"I don't remember it every being this high," says Reid, a 30-year veteran of the state's unemployment services office.
It's the highest rate since January, 1983, according to the South Carolina State Employment Security Commission. The commission does not have statistics broken down by areas of the county.
York County's mark is 2.7 percent higher than the national unemployment mark. In December alone, the state lost 22,000 jobs, the largest December drop on record, according to the commission.
Her staff hears plenty of sad stories as they get people started with unemployment benefits, which amount to about half of what they used to make before taxes, a maximum weekly payout of $326.
"We hear a lot of sad stories," Reid says. "'I lost my car. I'm losing my house. I'm about to get evicted.' It's so very depressing."
The number of applicants for her agency's job retraining program also has jumped, where people who've last jobs can be retrained in other, more marketable skills.
"It helps a lot of people," she says.
The lines are long not only at the work force center in Rock Hill, but at the Fort Mill Family Care Center, where 35 families came for help last Wednesday alone. Back in January, the numbers of families seeking food per day ranged from 14 to 20, according to Jan Arnold, a Care Center official.
In January, the care center gave out just over 26,000 pounds of food to 274 families, totaling 811 people, Arnold says, numbers far surpassing anything she's seen before.
The center aids local residents with fuel, energy, power, heating and getting medications.
"These are scary times," Arnold says. "It used to be that companies cared about their employees. It's not that way anymore. It's all about money."
So far though, donations still are finding their way to the Care Center, and nearly every penny goes right back out the door. Also turning up are new volunteers, people who lost their jobs and need to help out "just to keep their sanity," Arnold says.
"That's the sad part. It affects their self esteem."
Making matters worse is the uncertainty over when the economy will improve.
"It's going to get a whole lot worse," Arnold says. "We have not hit the bottom."
When it will turn around though is anyone's guess.
Federal stimulus plans pushed by President Barack Obama were approved this week, including billions for South Carolina, but it remains uncertain how much will actually head to York County when all is said and done, according to Chuck Fant, press secretary for U.S. Rep. John Spratt (D-York).
Next: Paul and Susan Hackney of Tega Cay and an update on Rebecca Gray.