Jordan Uhl

In early November, Donna Jarvis had $60 to her name and a faint hope that her finances were going to improve.

The 54-year-old Freedom Township resident said she always had decent jobs and managed to live more than paycheck to paycheck.

In 2007, Jarvis lost her steady job at a customer-service call center. Since then, she hasn’t been able to get a job that would last for more than a few weeks.

In November, after years of struggling to feed herself and keep her utilities on, she got a job as a medical assistant at a skilled-care facility in Portage County. She had hoped the job, which pays just above minimum wage, might help her end what had been a long period in extreme poverty.

Jarvis’ fall from the middle class began in 2002, when she and her husband of 27 years divorced.

“Instead of getting money, I got a dilapidated house,” Jarvis said.

Endless repairs on her old four-bedroom house in Freedom Township transformed what was to serve as her only source of comfort into another worry. New hot water tanks, pumps for her well and water storage tanks have put dents in what little money she has.

“[That was] important because I knew that no matter what happened, at least I was going to have a place to live. Even if I’d have to be sitting in the dark with no water,” Jarvis said. “It’s pretty nice to know that you’re not going to be living in your car.”

While homelessness has never been a real worry, Jarvis said watching pennies has been a constant obsession.

“I have a ton of debt that’s unpaid, “ Jarvis said. She estimates she owes more than $25,000.

Credit-card and cell-phone bills loom constantly. She is behind on her trash bill and faces defaulting on her car insurance.

“I haven’t been able to make payments on them because I knew what little money I had left had to go to put gas in my car.”

She participates in an income-based payment plan for her gas and electric bills. To keep those utilities on, she’s had to borrow money from her 35-year-old son, who lives in Copley Township.

“There’s a lot of things that I don’t have anymore,” she said. “If I want to watch a movie, I go to the library.

“I went through every bit of savings that I had, every bit of 401(k),” Jarvis said. “All of that’s gone.”

She collects a couple hundred dollars worth of food stamps each month.

The closest she comes to an evening out is a hot meal at the Christian Cupboard in Ravenna. The emergency food pantry provides a daily hot meal to area residents in need.

“It’s not just a hot meal. There’s a lot of camaraderie there,” Jarvis said. “It gets you out of your house, lifts your spirits. There’s the work force center, the library. That’s been a blessing and a half right there.”

Sister Denise Stiles, manager of the Center of Hope, of which the Christian Cupboard is a part, has witnessed Jarvis’ increased reliance on the center.

Eventually, Stiles began to view Jarvis more as a friend than as a repeat client.

“Things took a bad turn for her recently,” Stiles said.

Jarvis often confided in Stiles, and while she didn’t expect her problems to be solved, the listening ear gave her a general sense of well-being.

With the price of a gallon of gas costing more than two loaves of bread, Jarvis finds getting around to be a struggle as well.

Jarvis hasn’t given up and is investing in her future. Last year, she enrolled in a medical assistant program at Northcoast Medical Training Academy in Kent.

She took out two loans and a Pell grant to pay for the program, which she estimates will cost about $16,000.

Just as things appeared to get better, she got into a car accident on her way home from class.

“I nodded off and failed to stop at a stop sign. I ended up totaling my car.”

She also had broken bones, internal bruises and thousands of dollars in medical bills.

She pressed on, completing her schooling, attaining her medical assistant’s diploma and beginning her search for employment.

At first, prospects were bleak, despite the numerous classified advertisements for openings in the field.

“I could go into the medical field or be a truck driver,” Jarvis said. “Those were the two [areas] where people were always hiring.”

In mid-November, Jarvis was hired as a medical assistant at New Leaf Residential at $9 an hour.

“It’s my first job in the medical field, and its entry level,” Jarvis said. “The thing is, I need an income. I’m happy to have it.” is a collaboration between the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, the University of Akron and professional media, including WYSU-FM Radio and the Vindicator (Youngstown), the Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).