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Rebuilding careers, one life at a time

By Jay Blackman
NBC News producer

In a nondescript office park in Rockland, Mass., the unemployed can find an oasis. It’s the home of a nonprofit called One Life at a Time, an organization that helps those looking for jobs, but in a different way than the state office of unemployment.  

"We basically do one-on-one, and what that means is that everybody is an individual," said founder Christine Driscoll O’Neill. "Whatever their needs are… whatever they need to get to that place to be able to be employable again – we do."

Driscoll O’Neill believes the one-on-one attention that she and her staff are able to provide free of charge is what makes the difference for her clients.  

O'Neill, who started the organization with the proceeds from a whistleblower lawsuit and hopes to continue supporting it through grants, understands her clients’ pain firsthand.

"I know what it's like to feel unemployed, I didn't like it," she said. "There wasn't anybody there for me, so I want to be there for all the underemployed and unemployed." The organization has two offices in Massachusetts, but it has helped many people who live out of state, too, by phone and by Skype.

With a staff of 12, One Life at a Time offers many regular career services, such as resume polishing and help with cover letters, but it doesn’t stop there. In a conference room with a wall of windows, a makeup artist offers advice on what colors to wear to interviews while applying eye liner on Diane, who is out of work for the first time in her career.

"It's about feeling good about yourself," the makeup artist tells Diane. "Just be yourself. Obviously you want to show some confidence. You know that you're able to do the job, and I think that will go a long way."

Surrounded by an unemployed teacher, a laid-off senior accountant and a nurse struggling to find work, Driscoll O’Neill holds a group discussion about the importance of self-esteem.

In another office, career specialist Russell Abbatiello sets up a small video camera in preparation for a mock interview, which puts clients through the process before they have to do it for real. The interviews are recorded to show people how they performed and what they need to work on.  

Abbatiello is now working with a chemist who has been out of work for more than a year. Not only is he testing her interview skills, but he is also drilling her on everything from how she would deal with an ethical issue to what her advanced degrees would mean to an employer. When the interview is over, they watch the video together, analyzing her performance.

"It's not always the answers that you give," Abbatiello tells the chemist, "it's how you give the answers."

For Ted Burns, 53, and a 20-year veteran in the telecommunications industry, the past year has been challenging. With one child in college and another in high school, he is looking for any edge that will get him back into the workforce.

"I'm  trying to stay as positive as I can, put a smile on and, I know eventually something will come," Burns said. "It's tough, it's a battle, it's a struggle and you just try to stay as positive as you can."

Burns taps on a keyboard in the organization’s computer lab, where classes are offered to help clients leverage the networking power of social media sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn. Burns already has used LinkedIn to make several connections. (UPDATE: Just this week, with One Life's help, Burns started a new job in his field.)

Driscoll ONeill says the organization has helped 5,000 people find work, including people such as Jen Guisti, who was laid off from her job as a television producer. Guisti was surprised at how hard it was to find another job.  

"I  heard it was hard but I didn't think it was going to be like this," she said. "I didn't think I was going to be out of work for so long."

Guisti says she struggled going the traditional route through the state offices, and found she needed the one-on-one attention that One Life at a Time provides.

"They were able to help me see things in a different light, and have me go down different paths, and kind of test my skills and test myself," she said. Guisti is now back at work at MK3 Creative, working on corporate videos.

Even with success stories such as Guisti’s, Driscoll O’Neill knows there is more work to do. To her, the country’s 8.6 percent unemployment rate isn't just a number; it represents millions and millions of people.