Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series of stories about how the recession has affected the lives of Northern Shenandoah Valley residents.
By Preston Knight -- email@example.com
NEW MARKET -- In his 60 years, Jimmie Laughlin has slammed lumber over his left knee to get a date, not flinched when his two broken fingers were put back into place, inexplicably woken from a two-week coma and won $1,000 in a scratch-off lottery game.
For all the bragging he could do about each of those, they are painful reminders of a life that could have been.
The knee is a reminder of how Laughlin's body has failed him. He has no ligaments or cartilage left in it and cannot feel anything. When he was younger, he used the condition to his advantage, getting people to bet him money that he couldn't break a board over it, then performing the stunt and taking the money to use on a date.
Today, Laughlin suffers from two banged-up knees, a bad back and diseased lungs. His heart has been operated on twice and his teeth are missing.
The broken fingers he endured during a high school football game were set almost immediately by his military father. Laughlin's toughness -- his nickname on the gridiron was "Hatchet Man" -- would earn him a full scholarship to play at Middle Tennessee State University. His college career lasted only a year, however, because of his involvement in a nine-car pileup. Laughlin suffered a head injury and fell into a coma. He snapped out of it, but ultimately lost his scholarship.
The tragedy turned him "rebellious" -- he started to grow the beard he has today -- and sent him across the country, visiting 32 states, in the next chapter of his life.
Among the states he touched was West Virginia, the birthplace of his wife of 10 years, Thelma, 78. The couple started out as pen pals, years before their marriage and after Laughlin's return from rebellion. She would eventually woo him from the "city" (Hampton, where he grew up) and his job at the shipyard to the Shenandoah Valley.
Laughlin wound up at Howell Metal, makers of copper tubing, where he ran a table saw until he was forced to retire in March because of his health. His hours had been cut back over time anyway, he said, and the bills -- mainly the $325 a month the couple pays in rent for the 1941 mobile home and the two acres of land it sits on along Smith Creek Road -- piled up.
Even when Laughlin won $1,000 in the lottery last year, it could not be celebrated: The money went straight to paying bills.
For the past three years, the Laughlins have used Loaves and Fishes, a monthly food pantry run out of Manor Memorial United Methodist Church on North Congress Street, as their primary source for food. Sometimes the jovial and tough Laughlin, who was raised not to feel pain or show signs of weakness, cries as he thinks about where his life has led him.
"I never would have dreamed when I was younger that I'd ever be going to a food pantry," he said. "If I didn't earn it, I didn't want it."
The Laughlins' struggles are a microcosm of what food pantries like Loaves and Fishes have seen in the past year due to the recession. More and more people, many of whom would ordinarily not find themselves in need, are lining up for handouts.
At the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, 1.3 million pounds of food was distributed in June, more than double that of the same month in 2008, communications director Ruth Jones said.
At the same time, funding and resources at many nonprofit organizations throughout the Shenandoah Valley are down, forcing some to lay off staff and requiring all to pay more attention to the bottom line.
"We can't afford to not do our services," said Tootie Rinker, executive director of the Winchester-Frederick County chapter of the American Red Cross. "We've cut expenses anywhere we can."
Three people have been laid off, she said, leaving the chapter with just two full-time workers and one part-timer to cover Winchester and the counties of Frederick, Clarke and Warren. Donations are down at a time when the local budget has doubled, Rinker said, resulting in the potential elimination of some services that are not part of the group's core mission.
"People are not not giving," she said. "The givers are just giving less."
The Red Cross is among the dozens of affiliates that receive money from the United Way of Northern Shenandoah Valley. That allocation has decreased, as has been the case for most everyone served by the United Way, whose capital campaign last year drew $100,000 less than the year before, according to its local president, Joe Shtulman.
"There is a lot of stress -- clients are stressed, worried about jobs, homes. Also, there's stress on staff," he said. "Nonprofits cut back the same as businesses. They cut budgets, positions, have frozen salaries, all while there's an increased demand in services."
At the Salvation Army thrift store in Winchester, business administrator Steve McBride said earnings are down $49,000 because of dipping rag sales -- the clothing unfit to sell to the public that is sold to wholesalers instead.
"That's killing us," he said, adding that the United Way's impact grant to the organization was down $51,000 this year.
From March to May, Salvation Army vouchers given for clothing were up 31 percent, utility bills paid for clients increased 37 percent -- although the organization is not paying as much per bill -- and food boxes handed out went up a "whopping" 57 percent, McBride said. The organization has reduced two full-time staff members' hours to 20 per week and homeless shelter monitors have seen their work weeks knocked down to 32 hours.
At the Northern Shenandoah Valley Free Clinic in Winchester, one of the most glaring numbers from the recession is the 47 percent of patients who continue to seek care after being certified for treatment the first time, Executive Director Vicki McClelland said. Normally, the return rate is 20-23 percent, she said. Recertification is required every six months.
"They're not finding jobs. They're not getting insurance," McClelland said. "Their situations are not changing."
The clinic has added volunteers and allowed student physicians to take care of certain tasks, such as blood-pressure checks, during busy times, she said. About 10,000 more prescriptions have been written this year, McClelland said.
"It's not until August, September that other clinics are taking applications," she said. "We are on Thursday evenings thanks to volunteers. It's critical to have the volunteer time to evaluate new patients."
For some people, the free clinic is the only option after they discover they cannot afford to pay $160 up front at an urgent-care clinic or absorb emergency-room costs, McClelland said.
"My biggest concern is getting into flu season. Where does the uninsured person go?" she said. "We can't take care of everybody."
The important thing is that people do not put off preventive care treatment, said Pam Murphy, executive director of the Shenandoah Free Clinic in Woodstock, where the number of patients is up 20 percent this year.
Murphy is certain that even more people facing tough economic times are postponing doctor visits because they have more pressing concerns. During one six-month period, seven female patients were diagnosed with cancer, a number that "stunned" a local health department worker.
"One of our huge concerns is that a lot of people are putting off preventive care and screenings," Murphy said. "Postponing them doesn't save you in the long run."
And the economy is affecting the unborn as well. The Piedmont-Shenandoah Valley branch of the March of Dimes reports the same economic challenges as other nonprofit groups.
"The ironic thing is that one of the major factors of going into labor early is stress," said Mary Knapp, the group's director. "Now there is actually more stress on families. It makes our goal [of raising awareness of prematurity] even more important."
Hunger, on the other hand, needs no such campaign. The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, through its more than 400 member agencies, is serving around 83,000 people a month, according to Jones. Last year, the number was around 70,000.
The summer months, though, represent the lowest point for donations.
"We've literally had empty shelves," Jones said. "People often forget about us during the summer. They only think of us in holiday times."
Jimmie and Thelma Laugh-lin get in their 1989 Dodge van and travel to Loaves and Fishes on the third Thursday of each month.
Laughlin's job is to pick out bread -- wheat, rye or Italian, which he describes with an "mmm" and rubs his stomach -- and Mrs. Laughlin is saddled with going through the main pantry room and collecting anything else as he sits and waits in the hallway.
Canned foods, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, spaghetti sauce and chicken are among the items the Laughlins typically take home from the pantry, which they first frequented when Laughlin had to spend weeks at a time out of work because of medical procedures.
"If it wouldn't have been for the food pantry, we'd have been some hungry people," Mrs. Laughlin said.
The charitable items complement what the couple grows in their garden, including corn, squash, tomatoes, peas and jalapeno peppers, or buys from discount grocers such as Save-A-Lot in Mt. Jackson. The Laughlins have learned to make the food from the pantry -- which volunteers estimate would cost at least $50 at a grocery store -- last a month.
"I feel very blessed, very grateful," said Barbara Espenhorst, a volunteer at Loaves and Fishes for eight years. "I also feel somewhat like a sponge. I wish someone would wring me out and I can weep a little bit."
At the Laughlins' mobile home, which stretches 70 feet and is filled with items for their pets and Mrs. Laughlin's collection of VHS movies, the tears will occasionally fall, Laughlin admits. He continues to harbor hopes of receiving a grant to improve the trailer and of winning the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.
When it's time to eat some of his wife's cooking, especially her spaghetti, Laughlin says a prayer for the two of them and gets to eating, saving any concerns of where life has brought him for later and giving him a chance to brag for a change.
"For a guy who doesn't have teeth," he said, "I can put spaghetti away."
* Next: The flip side of recession.