NORTH ADAMS —
The job, interviewing people seeking fuel assistance, is a world away from away from the McDonald’s where Shoestock, a single mother of three, has worked for more than a decade. She wears a wool suit to the office, works 8 to 4 instead of night shifts, and, for the first time in her adult life, sees the chance to build a professional identity, and perhaps a career.
“I don’t go home smelling like french fries,” Shoestock said. “I feel fantastic, like I’m moving forward.”
Moving up is increasingly difficult in poor, postindustrial communities like North Adams, a former mill city in the northwest corner of Massachusetts where jobs and opportunities are few. Amid picturesque steeples, art galleries, and the misty backdrop of the Berkshire Mountains, unemployment remains near 8 percent, nearly a percentage point above the state average.
But Shoestock had a tireless advocate, Aleta Moncecchi, a wiry and energetic 49-year-old social worker who saw beyond Shoestock’s mistakes, missteps, and poverty, helping her land a temporary job at the Berkshire Community Action Council, where Moncecchi also works.
“She tries, she works hard. She’s trying to make a better life,” Moncecchi said of Shoestock. “I don’t think she’s had anyone that pushed her, that said, ‘You can do this. There’s more out there.’”
Shoestock was the subject of a 2011 Globe story about the state’s poorest residents falling further behind in a tech-driven economy centered on Boston. In Berkshire County, low-income families earned less, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1979 — even as earnings in upper income brackets rose significantly.
Struggling to feed her two sons and pregnant with a third child, all from different fathers, Shoestock was a McDonald’s supervisor with take-home income of about $16,000 a year, an empty refrigerator, and a pile of unpaid bills.
Moncecchi has known Shoestock for nearly a decade, first encountering her when she worked as a family advocate in the Head Start program, the government-sponsored early education program. Shoestock and another parent had brawled, and Moncecchi met with her to handle the situation.
The two women didn’t click instantly. But Moncecchi came to see that Shoestock had a willingness to listen and a deep desire to improve her life and her children’s.
Though it was not part of her job, Moncecchi began visiting Shoestock regularly, tracking her down as she moved from apartment to tenement, bringing her clothing and food. Several years ago, Moncecchi rallied members of her church to donate money to buy presents for Shoestock’s boys for Christmas.
Shoestock’s pride made it difficult for her to accept the gifts, so Moncecchi suggested she return the favor by volunteering at her church’s annual spaghetti supper. Shoestock did, bringing her sons. And she and her boys have returned every year since.
Moncecchi admitted she became frustrated two years ago when Shoestock, already living on the edge of homelessness, got pregnant with her third child, also a son. But, Moncecchi said, she also saw that Shoestock needed her more than ever.
When a position at the Community Action Council opened during a massive reorganization in 2013, Moncecchi told Shoestock to apply. The agency, funded by state and federal money, was about $360,000 in debt.
A new executive director, Deborah Leonczyk, had taken over and pared back staffing. But Moncecchi persuaded Leonczyk to hire Shoestock.
“Aleta said, ‘I have somebody wonderful,’” Leonczyk said, “so I gave her a chance.”
Now Shoestock, 31, sits at desk in a carpeted office along Main Street just a few blocks from the McDonald’s where she worked. Her long, brown hair is tied, held back in a bow, rather than a hairnet.
Her job involves working with low-income residents seeking fuel assistance, helping them to determine whether they qualify and fill out necessary paperwork. Moncecchi said Shoestock quickly grasped the job and works hard at it.
“I can’t believe what she’s capable of,” Moncecchi said. “She does so many applications a day, and I don’t have to tell her what to do.”
Shoestock said she tries to make the people who come in feel comfortable, because she knows it can be hard to ask for help. She recalled one older woman who had been diagnosed with an illness and suddenly needed assistance paying her fuel bill. The woman was embarrassed and upset, but Shoestock tried to put her at ease.
“There’s people like her and like me every day that have to ask for help,” she said. “It’s OK to need help.”
Shoestock earns just 50 cents more an hour than she did when she left McDonald’s, but she now gets paid holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas Day were the first paid holidays of her working life.
But she also knows that she still faces an uphill struggle. The job is temporary, contingent on agency funding, with no guarantees of becoming permanent. She has held onto her job at McDonald’s, working Sundays, just in case.
Shoestock still relies on food stamps and visits a church food pantry to keep her family fed. The church also offers free clothing from its consignment store, allowing people in need to take as much clothing as they can fit in a brown bag.
That is how Shoestock found the wool blazer, blouse, skirt, and low black heels she wore on a recent workday.
If she doesn’t land a permanent position at the agency, she hopes to turn the work experience into another office job. When her sons are older, she said, she might return to school to study social work. But for now, she’s simply grateful for the chance she has been given.
“People look at me differently now,” she said of her new image. “I love getting up in the morning.”Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.