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Gloria Coles , Minnesota

You Only Have One Family

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I am an only child of a father who worked in a steel mill and mom who worked in a plastics factory. My daughter, Charlita, was born in 1973. I’ve been working since I was 18 years old, and I didn’t get to go to college because my mother had a massive heart attack the same year I would’ve started. She wasn’t able to help care for my daughter, and since I am a single mom, that made going to school impossible.

Over the years, I’ve worked in a number of fields, including food service, vending machine repair and air-conditioning and refrigeration repair. I worked eight to nine years at Marshall Fields, and when my daughter was in 6th grade, I took a second job at Norman Trust bank in Chicago. At first I was only working part-time, but I would make more in 12 days than I would in a month at Marshall Fields. Eventually I started working full-time at the bank, but was kept “part-time” on the books so they could avoid having to pay me benefits.

That’s when I left to care for my mom. I was her primary caregiver for seven years from 1993 until 2000. Mom had been sickly for most of my life and she had ended up being pressured to leave her job because she kept having health challenges and the company’s premiums kept going up. When she retired, she didn’t have anything besides her Social Security; no pension or anything. Mom was mentally sharp until the very end, but her body was failing her and that was depressing for her. And I was an entrenched caregiver, so that became isolating. Because I was without income, I lost my home to foreclosure.

When my mother got sick, I wanted to care for her. You can get another job and another house, but you can’t get another mother. You don’t get another family. You take care of those that take care of you. I make the time to be there for people who have been there for me. The years that I was out of the traditional workforce are going to count as zero wages in my Social Security benefit calculation.

I was working around the clock and sometimes I was so focused on taking care of my mother’s needs that I was not even taking care of myself.

I am 56 years old, currently living in Minnesota, and I feel like at this point in my life I’m starting all over again. I’m on general assistance, and I manage a group home for which I receive room and board. I love this work-it’s community health work, which I’ve always wanted to do. It makes me feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives.