In Fort Myers, an American dream shattered

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Chrissanda Walker's bourbon-glazed chicken is just out of the oven. The bread pudding is finished. The collard greens worry her, though; she doesn't want to overcook them. Walker looks at the clock. It's 10 a.m. She's been on her feet since 6.

Walker used to make $100,000 a year as a nursing home executive until she lost her job a year and a half ago. Unable to find a new one, she shed her business suits and high heels and put on an apron and soft-soled shoes. This year, she and her daughter are living on $11,000: her unemployment benefits plus whatever she can earn selling home-cooked dinners for $10 apiece.

Her American Dream has taken a punch to the gut. "I never thought I'd be in a situation like this," she says, smoke from the cooking swirling about her. "My friends say to me: 'Listen to the Lord, Chris.' I say, 'No, I have to have a paycheck.' "

The Census Bureau recently reported that the poverty rate in the United States rose to 14.3 percent last year, the highest level in more than 50 years.

Texas and Florida saw the most people fall below the line. In Florida alone, 323,000 people became newly poor last year, bringing the state's poverty total to 2.7 million.

The numbers tell another tale as well: Nationwide, in black households such as Walker's, income plunged an average of 4.4 percent in 2009, almost three times the drop among whites. The number of blacks living below the official poverty line - $21,756 for a family of four - increased by 7 percent in just one year.

"The whole idea in an improving economy is that everyone will benefit," says Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. "When the train speeds up, everything does improve, but blacks are still in the caboose. When it slows down - in a bad economy - blacks fall out of the caboose."

Now Walker, 50, feels a part of her future has been snatched. Gone like an old breeze. This year, the last dime of her savings vanished. Her health insurance is a thing of the past.

She has had some kind of job - from babysitter to server at a fast-food restaurant - since she was 12 years old. She has always believed in the work ethic. She retains the ethic, but the work is gone.

"My parents had always worked," she says. "They always provided for us. It was never a 'no.' It's what they always instilled in us: Do your best, strive for excellence. That's why all of this is so hard for me," she says, her words struggling to emerge through the sobs.

Sabrina Goodwin Monday, a college classmate, has held some long, late-night phone conversations with Walker. "It's hard for her to believe in the American Dream anymore because there's nothing dreamy about her life anymore."

Walker's mother, Betty, was a nurse and her father, Louis, worked for the power company. Their only safety net was their own industriousness. Betty Walker died 11 years ago of Lou Gehrig's disease. Louis Walker, now 70, retired after her death. But lately he has gone back to work, driving a tractor-trailer between Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. He has bills to pay.

All of the Walker children - Chrissanda; Louis Jr., 48, who works for Federal Express; Sonya, 47, a supervisory probation officer; and Shawn, 42, who works in water-waste management - made their parents proud. But Chrissanda had the most professional success and her financial fall has rattled the family. Many now watch her with a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I gaze. "She's not the same person that she was," Sonya says. "I see her getting tired in the fight."

In a situation where a family success story is struggling, other wage earners reevaluate their own position. "They begin to think: 'We don't have anybody to turn to now if our situation gets worse,' " says Margaret Simms, director of the Low-Income Working Families project at the Washington-based Urban Institute. "And that becomes frightening."

Walker's climb in the nursing home industry began after she graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in health-care administration and planning. She worked at facilities in Alabama and Tennessee before returning to the Fort Myers area in the late 1980s. "I can go to a challenged building and bring it out of trouble," she says.

"When you walked into one of her nursing homes, you'd see how she always gave everyone a personal gift during the holidays," Sonya says. "My sister would miss half of our Christmases to go back to the nursing home."

In 2007, Walker attained a career goal when she was named administrator of long-term care at Lehigh Acres Health and Rehabilitation Center in a nearby town. Among her responsibilities were marketing, public relations, financial management and staff development. She was appointed to community boards. She purchased nice clothes for her daughter, Ravean Newton. She mentored at-risk youth. She took Sasha, her Shih Tzu, to the groomer almost weekly. She attended swanky events with her Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters.

Then came March 20, 2009. The day she was fired.

"It was such a shocker," she says. "I could see if I had done something wrong. I had just finished an eight-month construction project for the facility."

Officials at Greystone Healthcare Management, which owns the Lehigh Acres facility, did not return calls seeking comment.

Nadine Kettle, now a nurse at Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers, worked with Walker at the Lehigh Acres facility. "At staff meetings, managers were always talking about how good she was," Kettle says. "I don't think she had any inkling the company was going to part ways with her."

Walker fretted over how to tell her family and friends. She worried about how it would affect Ravean.

This past May, the junior dance was approaching. Ravean had spotted a beautiful dress. But it cost $500. "I said, 'Ravean, you can't get that dress. We are down to nothing.' "

In 20 months, she had gone from flourishing American Dream to Down to Nothing.

"There have been some painful days," Chrissanda Walker says. "I should have been back working by now. I've had to hold on to my faith. I've gone on job interviews. I know I'm qualified. My record speaks for itself."

She sighs and drops her head.

At a pre-Christmas event last year, some of Walker's sisters in Delta Sigma Theta were discussing their annual holiday charitable effort. Christine Rahmings, 54, president of the local chapter, hatched a plan to help Walker. "My husband Louis would say: 'How can you all help all these other people when one of your own is hurting?' " she recalls. Once the gift cards were collected at the sorority planning event, Rahmings stood up and made a speech that ended with the basket's contents being given to Walker.

A short while later, Walker started making meals. During the Depression, many American women, trying to stave off ruin, went to their kitchens and emerged selling dinners - from their porches, windowsills, back yards. "It reminded me of the black women who used to sell dinners to help build churches," Rahmings says. "Chris was selling dinners, though, to pay her utilities, or to get something for Ravean. You've heard that expression: 'By any means necessary.' "

It's a Friday night and there's a football game. Ravean, 18, is on the cheerleading squad at Fort Myers High School. Ravean, who has a part-time job at Sears, feared she wouldn't make it to cheerleading camp last summer but family members chipped in, helping with the cost.

"Ravean is a very expensive child," Walker says. "In a way, we've made this monster. But it's no different than the way our parents treated us."

It's a pretty night, warm, lit with both moonlight and klieg lights.

Walker has been looking forward to the game. Something to get her mind off the economy, off checking want ads, off collard greens and glazed chicken.

She walks slowly toward the bleachers, limping a little. She was in the emergency room two days ago. A nerve in her back has affected her foot. Those who care about her give their own diagnosis: stress.

She takes a seat but her soliloquy starts right up as acquaintances walk by: "This girl coming is a friend of Ravean's. Her father just lost his job." Then: "See that girl over there? One of her parents is laid off."

On the field, Fort Myers High is falling behind. Kelly Newson, an old high school classmate of Walker's, takes a seat behind her. He starts right in: "You find a job yet?" Walker shakes her head no.

Riverdale scores again.

Newson goes on: "If God wants you to go North, you go North. You can't go Northwest if he wants you to go North, my sister." Walker nods, not sure about the cryptic counseling. "I had a relative in the nursing home Chris was at," Newson begins again, "and she was really happy there. Chris took care of the place. It was clean. I just can't understand why she can't get a job."

The game is over. Riverdale beats Fort Myers, 39 to 20. Newson climbs down off the bleachers and says: "You got to keep looking, Chris. There's something out there for you. I'll be going now. And listen, if I don't see you again down here, I'll see you up there." He points toward heaven. Walker nods.

The next morning, there's a knock at Walker's door. Maurice Robinson, an airline steward, is home for the weekend and has come to help deliver meals. He could be a character in a Zora Neale Hurston novel: a kind man who grew up in the neighborhood and was always running in and out of Betty and Louis Walker's home. "This is the South," Robinson says. "We're old school. To this very day - God rest her soul - it's always been a privilege to come to Ms. Betty's house."

Robinson tries to help Walker stay optimistic. "We keep saying to Chris: 'This too shall pass.' I came back to town this weekend to say to her: 'Girl, let's do something. Let's get prayed up.' "

He's already been doing publicity for today's dining experience. "I done already put fliers up in the beauty salons."

Walker is in the kitchen. "I'm going to cut my portions back," she tells Robinson. "I usually have big portions. There's a recession."

Walker is running behind; her deliveries should have gone out the door 30 minutes ago. "See," Robinson says, "you always say you don't need no help. That's a lie. That's why I keep coming by. Now those ladies at the beauty parlor gonna be hungry, Chris! And when they get to eating, other ladies come in and see that - and they gonna want to eat, too."

"Maurice," Walker says, "I'm just not gonna be giving no big portions."

"I told you to stop narrating to me," he says. "Do what you gotta do, baby. How you think Paula Deen got started? She wasn't always lights, camera, action."

Walker allows herself a smile.

Six dinners are loaded up. Maurice drives; Ravean holds the meals upright. They travel less than a mile to Sister's Beauty Salon.

"Y'all late," pipes Lynn Smith, one of the salon employees, as they come through the door.

"Y'all didn't call me about selling dinners," a lady under a hair dryer calls out. Ravean scoots over and takes down her order and phone number.

Ten minutes later, they're at Lee County Emergency Management, delivering a meal to Shedrick Whitfield, a fire and ambulance dispatcher who is a hairstylist on the side. He's one of a trio of "hair angels" who make it possible for Walker to get her hair done every week. He says he owes a debt to her. "When I was jobless for eight months, she would feed me," he says. "And whenever I did her hair - when she did have a job - she would always overtip me."

Back home, Walker is in the kitchen, wondering why the phone hasn't been ringing with more orders. It's inching toward noon. "I've got to send out some more text messages," she says.

Robinson takes another dinner and delivers it 10 miles away. He comes back, and says: "Baby, we can't be taking one dinner all the way out there. Tell them people next time they want a dinner they got to order at least six."

By 4 o'clock, Walker has sold 15 dinners. Minnie Jackson, a retired nurse, has come by to pick up a sweet potato pie, and Walker asks her to do a quick diagnosis on her foot and leg. "Nothing's fractured," Jackson says.

A few more dinners are sold. By day's end, Chrissanda Walker, searching for her American Dream through pots of Southern cuisine, has grossed a little more than $220.

She recently received an extension on her unemployment benefits. But they are set to run out again on Dec. 4. "What about Christmas? What are people all over the country to do?" she wonders.

She had a job interview at a nursing home not long ago. The interviewer glowed about her resume. She called a slew of friends. "I said, 'Y'all, we got to be praying.' "

They went with another candidate instead.

Walker doesn't blame politicians or Wall Street for her situation. She refers to it as "a storm in my life, that she will overcome. There is an overriding regret: "I look at my life and wish I would have saved more money."

Not long ago, Walker was attending a luncheon with some local professional women. Only one was jobless. They laughed and nibbled on refreshments. Then they moved outdoors for an exercise: Each wrote down her immediate wishes on a scrap of paper and put it in a balloon. The balloons were inflated and tied off with the wishes inside. Then they were let go.

In her red balloon, Chrissanda Walker's wishes were clear and direct. "To have grace and mercy. To have finances in order. To have a job."

She watched as the breeze lifted her balloon up and away.

In Fort Myers, an American dream shattered 11/28/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:25pm]

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