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Lillian Jackson could be the poster child for Niagara Falls' economic decline. As a young woman, she left to find employment. Thirty years later, she has returned home for family reasons. But her homecoming may be short-lived unless she can find what eluded her the first time -- a job.

Like so many city natives, her passion for her hometown is undaunted. But, the inability to earn a living may overcome her urge to replant her roots in familiar soil.

Jackson came home four years ago to help her mother and put her house on the market, and worked for a while in a downtown hotel.

For the last two months, Jackson, a 1962 graduate of Niagara Falls High School, has been spending at least 20 hours a week at the front desk of Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. She is considered a volunteer by the hospital but she receives $5.15 an hour through the Title V Senior Community Service Employment Program, which provided her placement there.

Karen Hurtubise-Pashong, director of volunteer services, said she works with programs such as Title V for those over 55 and Health Careers for Youth for ages 19 to 21, both administered by the Niagara County Employment and Training Office, which use volunteer placements as job training opportunities for their clients.

Volunteers are always needed, Hurtubise-Pashong said. There are many opportunities, and no specific skills are required. On-the-job training is provided. Information is available at 278-4440.

"She is a lovely volunteer," Hurtubise-Pashong said of Jackson. "She has wonderful people skills and verbal skills on the phone, and in interacting with people. She learned the tasks associated with the information desk volunteer position very quickly."

Jackson is "enthusiastic, dependable and hard-working," according to Marlene Vaeth, coordinator for Title V, and Judy Tederous, manager of adult services at the Worksource One Center.

Jackson is gaining work experience while she is sharing some of her talents, which is exactly the point of the program. Worksource is a one-stop employment center at the former Trott Access Center, with computers, job banks, professional counselors and other job training aids that is open to the entire community.

Tell me about your background.

I used to work at the Gazette and when I left there I went back to school, North Carolina Central University, came home, couldn't find any opportunities that interested me so I went to California. . . . I'm an excellent typist so I've always had opportunities to do typing and secretarial-type work for people, and when I went to California I registered with a couple of temporary agencies and I worked for a temporary agency for five days a week for six years straight at various jobs. I was never without work. But, unfortunately the cost of living in California is so extremely high that you can't expect that kind of salary in this area.

But I haven't been able to find a lot of work here that blended with my skills that I could be really happy doing, and I know it has a lot to do with age and sex and race probably a little bit, but mostly age. That's number one. Sex would probably be number two. You know, who wants to hire a 60-year-old woman to be their receptionist?

How do you like working at Memorial?

I like it here and I'm hoping that being here it might be possible that I'll be talking to somebody or see something on the (jobs) board that I qualify for. And because I'm getting to know people and they're getting to know me, if I see something and apply for it, I'm sure I'll at least have a fair shot. But most people think well, she's 60 and they figure when they give me a job, well two years down the road that's the end of that.

There goes the training and the time we invested in her. But that's not so. I want to work. My mother is 83. My mother just stopped working. She worked for . . . Capital Cleaners and the only reason my mother stopped working is because she fell and broke her hip and now she's on a walker and she can't stand in the plant and do the kind of work she did . . .

I have the same kind of energy so I don't know. But I feel better now that I'm doing this because I'm talking to people and I know that even if nothing turns up at the hospital I know that I can network.

You started volunteering two months ago. How has your experience been so far?

This is the first thing I've ever done like this. It matters. You're helping people . . . I'm helping myself but for the first time I'm doing something for someone else. It makes me feel good because, first of all, this is my home. There's not a day in this hospital that I don't see somebody that I know . . . If I don't know them, I know their family. It's no small thing that they pay your parking every day you come and they give you a meal if you work more than three hours so you don't have to carry money. So you work, go home to your family and feel good about yourself. How often can you sit around and dust the furniture?

If you don't get a job will you go back to California?

All things considered I would love to stay here if I didn't have to suffer. In order not to suffer I have to have a full-time job with a decent salary, and I don't mean minimum wage. . . . If nothing comes up really, really positive for me, once the house is out of our hair, I'm out of the state. I'll go back to Los Angeles. I might try Dallas first, because I have a niece that's a nurse (and) because I like a big city. And, Buffalo's big enough and I'm close enough to Buffalo to take advantage of the social things in Buffalo. I like Friday nights at the Albright-Knox and stuff like that.