AURORA, Ill. — Down the road from an emergency food pantry where a small crowd waits for the chance to gather free groceries, there is a church sign that reads: "If you need help, ask God. If you don't, thank God."
Debbie Jurcak, one of those in line, will tell you that it is indeed divine help — or, anyway, faith-based organizations — that she and her family have relied on in recent weeks. Late last month, the federal government ended her unemployment benefits, six months after she was laid off from an administrative job.
Having passed that six-month mark, she had joined the ranks of the "long-term unemployed," a growing group of more than 1.3 million Americans for whom Congress recently declined to extend benefits. It is a label that Jurcak, a former teacher with two master's degrees, never expected would apply to her.
"It's not something you want to go around talking about all the time. I think a lot of people don't share what the depth of their need is," the 43-year-old mother of three said, wiping tears from underneath her glasses as she waited for her turn at the West Suburban Community Pantry, outside Chicago.
"But ... there's no room for pride," she added, "because we all come to a point in our life — whether it's financial reasons, or medical reasons, or mental health reasons, or whatever they are — where you recognize your need for help."
Turns out, Jurcak is one of the lucky ones, or so she hopes. After months applying for jobs, she learned just days after her visit to the pantry, that she got a customer service job, which she starts this week. It's only temporary for now and the pay is modest. But if she proves herself, there's a good chance she'll be hired permanently, she said.
Her husband Frank is working for a temp agency, driving a forklift or delivering documents for $12 an hour. He, too, is awaiting word on a full-time job, his in law enforcement.
Permanent employment would mean major changes for this family and for their children, who were on the verge of eviction after Jurcak's benefits expired last month.
But many other American parents are still struggling to find work.
A recent report from the Urban Institute found that, in an average month, there are still three times as many children living with parents who've been out of work more than six months as there were in 2007, before the recession hit. And Illinois is among the states with the highest percentage of children in that predicament — with nearly 5 percent of them living with parents who are long-term unemployed, according to the report.
Unemployment benefits are certainly not a cure-all, said Julia Isaacs, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, who co-authored the report. But they do help cushion the negative impact that unemployment, and resulting poverty, can have on outcomes such as school performance, she said.
For the Jurcaks, it's easy now to look back and see how they would have done things differently.
But Debbie Jurcak says there was no way of knowing how bad things would get after she left a teaching job in 2009 to spend time at home with her newborn daughter, Ella, who's now 4.
In the years that followed, Frank's assignments as a commercial diver at nuclear facilities began to dwindle. Two years ago, with bills mounting, they sold their four-bedroom home in a short sale and moved their kids to a new school district.
Eventually, Frank was permanently laid off, leading him to the temporary jobs while he looked for permanent work.
Debbie, meanwhile, had gotten the administrative job in the fall of 2012, but was laid off last May when her company had to cut back. While receiving unemployment benefits, she said she constantly sought work, reasoning: "My full-time job is finding a job and taking care of my kids."
Through it all, she and Frank have tried to shield their children as best they can — not always successfully.
Though Ella still went to preschool, she often told her parents she missed her daycare friends. Sometimes, she'd bring out her piggy bank and announce, "I have money!"
The two older children, ages 13 and 16, have had an even greater sense of the growing desperation from their mom and from Frank, who is their stepdad.
"They definitely know we've been struggling," Debbie Jurcak said. She and Frank have tried to absorb as much of the negative impact as they can.
To maintain a semblance of normalcy even with money tight, for instance, they bought their kids Christmas gifts. But when the letter about unemployment benefits arrived just after the holiday, it was difficult to hide the panic.
Unable to cover January rent, the couple sought emergency aid from the Society of St. Vincent De Paul — an organization that regularly collects clothing and household donations from residents at their apartment complex. Their church plans to help them with February's rent payment, bridging the gap from the loss of Jurcak's unemployment benefits to her first paycheck.
Even before those benefits were cut off, the couple had sold many of their household belongings at secondhand shops to help pay the bills.
Still, Jurcak's 16-year-old son Dakota, a sophomore in high school, doesn't want anyone's pity.
"I don't feel, like, sad," he said. "We're fortunate just to be where we are now. My heart goes out to all the people who don't have what we have."
Indeed, though their apartment is a tight fit for five people, they have a home — no small thing in these days of extreme cold — and food on the table. He and his siblings all have their own rooms. He sleeps in the den, using a curtain for a door. And the living room serves as a bedroom for his parents, who sleep on a pull-out sofa bed.
Debbie Jurcak has used the dining room table as her office, scouring job sites and making calls to set up interviews. She's also used her time to apply for state assistance, food stamps and state and federal medical insurance — until they're more financially stable.
Both of her daughters have some health issues, and medical bills have been mounting, along with everything else.
Jurcak found this new job with the help of a member of the family's church, after sending out hundreds of applications, most of which received no response.
Often, she said, her education seemed to work against her.
"The impression that employers seem to have is, 'You're not going to stay,'" Jurcak said. Or she said they'd tell her, they were only looking for candidates who met the minimum requirements for the job.
"They'd say I'm over-qualified."
At the West Suburban Community Pantry, where Jurcak has gotten many of her groceries in recent months, workers say it's not unusual to see unemployed professionals, including the occasional out-of work CEO — even as the economy improves. And always, there are families.
Volunteer Julie Benario recalls one young mom with three children who became overwhelmed each time she visited the pantry.
"She'd get in her car and cry because people were so nice to her," Benario said.
Jurcak understands. One day, hopefully soon, she said, she vows to "pay it forward" and be the one to do the giving.
She also hopes members of Congress will find a way to reinstate long-term benefits, at least until the economy is stronger. Democrats are proposing extending the benefits from six to 11 months. Republicans have questioned how to pay for that.
"I don't want to rely on my government — and quite frankly, I'm not convinced that it's really government's role to do all that it is asked to do," Jurcak said. "But it shouldn't ignore the needs of the people either."
Her voice shook when she said "ignore."
"Maybe until you're in the situation, you don't really get it."