EAST LIVERPOOL - Linda Harper savored every bite of her early Thanksgiving meal on Saturday - the tender turkey, the stuffing, the mashed potatoes and gravy, the green beans, the roll with butter - but by today she won't remember any of it.
Harper, 57, of Wellsville, suffers from short-term memory loss - an unexplained malady that has afflicted her since 1983 - and, as a result, can't keep a job.
Before her illness, Harper had an $1,800-a-month job and an expense account. Today, she gets $717.50 a month from the government - the same disability check she has received for nearly 30 years. It's never been adjusted for inflation or cost-of-living increases, she said, so it barely covers her bills.
Gary Cunningham (far right), outreach coordinator at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, presents a plaque of appreciation to (front row, from left) Kathy Leek, assistant manager at the Calcutta Wal-Mart, and Ruth Nemeth, zone manager at the Calcutta Wal-Mart. With them are (back row, from left) St. Stephen’s parishioners Ruth Ann Reiner, Jeff Hendrickson, Tim McDowell and Mary Kay Cunningham. Since November 2010, Wal-Mart employees have logged more than 1,400 volunteer hours with the church’s monthly Good Shepherd Community Lunch. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
That's why, on Saturday, Harper came to the Good Shepherd Community Lunch at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in downtown East Liverpool. Without the free meals and her food assistance card, she doesn't how she'd meet her monthly food needs.
Despite the hardships, Harper wears a big smile on her face as she talks, knowing that there are people worse off than her.
"My house is paid for," she said. "I have a car."
Volunteers at St. Stephen's served meals to about 225 people on Saturday. In October, they served about 300 people, many of whom don't have reliable transportation.
John and Amber Snider, of East Liverpool, walked to the Good Shepherd lunch with their three children - ages 5, 4 and 2. Their car blew a head gasket awhile ago, so now they walk everywhere.
John, 32, is a fork-lift driver, but he can't find a job. He said he's looking "desperately" for work. "It's this bad economy ... especially in this area," he said.
Amber, 24, isn't working either. The family lives in a three-bedroom apartment, and John pays the rent partly by doing maintenance jobs for the landlord, he said.
"We're fortunate," he said. "We feel very blessed, even though we're short and money's tight."
Married seven years, the couple said they get strength from their faith and their church, House of Prayer in Calcutta.
"You definitely lose sleep," John said, "but then you realize there are people out there who are in a worse position than you."
Ronnie Snider, 41, came to the Good Shepherd lunch with his girlfriend, Rachel Houlette, 21, who is pregnant. Snider moved to the area seven months ago from Tennessee to "try something different and see if I can make a living up here." Houlette's from Missouri. The two met in Lisbon, they said.
"This'll probably be the only Thanksgiving meal I have," Snider said, adding that he hadn't eaten in three days. "She has to eat because she's pregnant."
A diesel mechanic, Snider said he can't find work in his field but is getting by doing odd jobs. "I'm going to give it my best shot," he said.
Frank Larkins, 52, of East Liverpool, said Saturday was his first time at the Good Shepherd lunch. He suffered a brain aneurysm six years ago, and, ever since then, has been trying to qualify for disability assistance.
Larkins said he attended a hearing in Morgantown, W.Va., and was told approval would take four to eight weeks. That was in August, and he still hasn't heard.
"I'm just trying to make light of a bad situation," he said.
Larkins, who used to work on tunnel-drilling machinery, said he makes ends meet with the help of friends and his food assistance card. The clutch went out on his truck, so now he mostly walks.
Jennifer Ream, 34, came to the Good Shepherd lunch with her daughter, Harmony, 10. They recently moved to East Liverpool from Austintown. Her husband is in jail, so she's trying to get some help from her mother-in-law, she said.
Ream said she has a wide variety of job skills but no employment prospects. She and her daughter get around by walking.
"I'm hopeful things will work out. You have to have a positive outlook on life," she said.
"William" said he's a regular at the Good Shepherd lunch but didn't want his name to be used. A drug addict, he's struggled to get clean - and he's not sure he even wants to.
East Liverpool police found "William" passed out earlier in the week, with two aerosol cans of dust cleaner at his feet. He said he's addicted to inhalants.
"William" lost his apartment in East Liverpool and now lives with a friend in Chester. "I got behind on my bills, and I haven't been able to catch up," he said.
"William" has burned most of his bridges with his family. He's been in treatment twice, but, lately, his drug addiction has been landing him in jail. He has no transportation and no job prospects - and he's looking at more jail time now that he's violated his probation and is facing a new charge of abuse of a harmful intoxicant.
"I'm pretty much at the bottom of the bottom right now," he said, "and I can't bet back up."
The next Good Shepherd lunch is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 15.