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Back from the brink: Poor no more

A Montana woman finds new opportunities and new optimism as she rebounds from a crippling job setback.

By Karen Datko

The wolf has backed far away from the door since "I make $6.50 an hour; am I poor?" -- my account of how I fell from the middle class and what I'm doing about it -- appeared in January.

My plan of attack has worked. My circumstances are more secure, and my future includes the prospect of regaining health insurance.

I'm operating a pet-sitting business and steadily building a clientele. I get paid to visit pets in their homes while their owners are away.

I'm now working nearly full time -- I'm part time by choice, to allow sufficient time for pet-sitting -- for much more than $6.50 an hour in the produce department of a new retail giant that opened in my small Montana town. The pay covers basic living expenses like food, mortgage, heat and phone. And going to work is like getting paid to work out. My 52-year-old body is in better shape than it's been in years.

After 30 years as a full-time journalist, I'm now pursuing freelance writing as well.

The issue of health care is unresolved. But after a year at my retail job, I'll be eligible for health insurance.

Help poured in

My mental outlook couldn't be better, due in large part to the support of friends here and far away and the outpouring of concern from many strangers who read my story.

I'd mentioned making tough decisions about little things like hand lotion and big things like food; in the mail came boxes of hand lotion and food. I'd had to sell my household goods; soon I had a bed and a couch. Former colleagues in Anchorage sent me a box of Alaska goodies. Longtime friends sent money that helped get me through a lean time. The acts of generosity are too numerous to list here. I'm grateful for every one of them.

I'm happy to be where I am. I adopted the Hi-Line region of Montana as my home more than five years ago. While other parts of the country may offer higher wages (and often a much higher cost of housing, beyond the reach of a single person like me), they wouldn't provide the sense of community that's so important to me.

Where everybody knows your name

I was deeply moved when a friend recently told me she was proud I had returned to the windswept prairie of northern Montana after my disastrous move to another state.

"I'm glad that you had the guts to come home," she said. Her statement acknowledged that small-town living, with its limited employment possibilities, can be difficult but provides the comfort of familiar faces and many good friends.

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