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April 29, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Wearing small white tennis shoes, 19-month-old, strawberry blonde Grace trots unsteadily toward a patch of purple wildflowers blooming in Peace Park. She bends down, rips a handful from the earth and dashes to give them to her parents, Jon and Kelli Hammond. They fill a cup holder on the stroller with the leafy gifts. Molly, Grace’s 12-year-old sister, never leaves her side. She is an older, taller version of Grace, with matching wispy hair and wide, sea-blue eyes. Molly loves science, playing the alto saxophone in band and, most recently, writing stories. Grace loves to talk. But tonight, she is a silent, smiling petal gatherer.
None of the Hammonds are very chatty: There is a subtle weariness hovering over their slow, after-dinner stroll. Kelli remarks about how tired she is, and it is only Tuesday. Jon is keenly dressed in a salmon-colored collared shirt tucked into a pair of khakis. Tuesday has become Jon’s favorite day. It’s a change of pace from being a stay-at-home dad.
Jon, 35, has been unable to find a job since he graduated with honors from Columbia College in December. His age did not stop him from pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history after a 2003 spinal injury hindered the heavy lifting necessary for running his floor-installation business.
Tuesday is the only day the Hammonds can afford a baby sitter. Jon insists on paying their close friend, Mallory Langston, $20 to watch Grace while he works at the State Historical Society for four and a half hours. “I’ve refused it, but he sneaks it to me somehow,” Langston says. “He makes me feel guilty because he goes out and works for nothing.”
At the society, Jon mostly repairs and inventories old newspapers, but he is ready to take on any task. He’d like to be hired there, but budget cuts have made that unlikely. “It’s nice to take a deep breath, walk around (MU’s) campus, get out of the house,” he says. “Even though I don’t think anything will come of it, it’s empowering. It gives me self-worth, paid or not.”
Jon speaks with a soft, gravelly voice that’s both humble and confident. His head is covered with closely trimmed red hair and a matching beard. He wears glasses over his icy blue eyes and speaks with a smooth eloquence. To the average onlooker, Jon appears successful and financially stable. His round face glows pink in the cheeks when he smiles, but that happens rarely.
Hailing from a long line of blue-collar workers, Jon was the first in his family to graduate from college. This milestone was quickly overshadowed, however, by the overwhelming challenge of finding a job. The dismal economic climate has led to four months of rejection letters and letdowns as swarms of applicants and companies trimming staffs have left few positions available.
Jon started by searching for jobs specific to his passion: history. Ever since he was a kid, he has been an avid reader and art lover. “I can remember one time we were driving in Chicago,” his mother, Jean, says. “He was 12 and announced he wanted to be a curator for a museum. I don’t think most 12-year-olds think of that.”
That’s still the dream, but now Jon is ready to settle for just about anything. “I have student loans to pay back, bills mounding up,” he says. He is trying to be more open-minded by considering administrative work and even sales positions, which he barely had the stomach for earlier in his life.
Having worked various jobs since before high school, Jon never foresaw any employment struggles. He met Kelli in his hometown of West Plains shortly after high school, and they dated for three years before tying the knot. They’ve been happily married for 14 years. “We have a good relationship,” Jon says. “Having a partner made a lot of things easier.”
Jon kept working while Kelli went to college and found a job. She is now employed as a Title I math teacher tutoring kindergarten through eighth-graders who are in danger of falling behind in school. She helps them boost their test scores, much like she tutored Jon when he had to pass algebra at Columbia College.
Kelli’s job has been the steady source of income holding their family together, but in the past few years, budget cuts have brought on anxiety that her contract will not be renewed. She used to teach summer school, but the program was cut. Jon is unsure how much longer they can skate by on Kelli’s salary alone. “Something better come up soon,” he says.
On a typical day, Kelli sees Molly to the bus around 6:50 a.m. and is out the door by 7. Jon wakes up at 8 and gets Grace dressed and fed. Playing in the back yard with bubbles or sidewalk chalk takes place before Grace’s nap at noon. This gives Jon a chance to spend a couple hours online cycling through the Web sites he checks daily for job openings; among the regulars are CareerBuilder.com, Glassdoor.com, LinkedIn.com and Monster.com. Some afternoons he spends a few hours in the car dropping off résumés to promising places, including Job Point, Columbia College Career Services and Carfax.
Jon is aiming to find work in the Columbia area, but he has expanded his search to Fulton, Jefferson City, Boonville and Moberly. If the pay were right, he would be willing to commute an hour, but he doesn’t want to move away from Columbia. It’s a place Jon and Kelli both love, and they hope to eventually buy a house. They have been renting the same three-bedroom duplex for nearly seven years and are running out of space. Jon remarks that with all the stuff acquired over the years, a bigger garage and bigger bedrooms would be nice.
A job would be nice, too. Jon is getting restless and frustrated. Grace’s baby sitter can see it on his face and hear it in his voice. “He’s a smart guy trying to support his family, and it doesn’t seem like it should be this hard to find employment today,” Langston says. “As far as work goes, some people could take it or leave it. But Jon really wants to work. There’s a real eagerness. Jon’s next step is tying résumés to balloons and hoping they get in the right person’s hands.”
Kelli is more upfront about the situation. “At least he has the historical society,” she says. “It makes him a little less grumpy. He feels like he has something to do.”
Still, she says they are luckier than some. Jon recently had two phone interviews for an opening that just might prove to be the first step to security. Optimistic but equipped with the armor of past disappointments, Jon is anxiously awaiting news.
“We’ll see,” he says.