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Wakarusa resident Ed Neufeldt became a symbol of Elkhart County resilience

A year ago, Ed Neufeldt was an unemployed, former RV factory worker who used his free time to volunteer at Faith Mission with other church members. But much has changed in a year. A short write-up of the Wakarusa resident's volunteer work caught the eye of the White House. He met President Barack Obama and introduced him on an international stage.

Posted on Dec. 31, 2009 at 12:00 a.m.

WAKARUSA -- A year ago, Ed Neufeldt was an unemployed, former RV factory worker who used his free time to volunteer at Faith Mission with other church members.

But much has changed in a year. A short write-up of the Wakarusa resident's volunteer work caught the eye of the White House. He met President Barack Obama and introduced him on an international stage. He told his story. He got a job.

Elkhart County has changed, too. The president came to visit. Twice. National and international media outlets turned their lenses on Elkhart as an example of the recession's devastation, and months later, possibility of recovery.

More factories shuttered as unemployment climbed to 18.9 percent. One company, Electric Motor Corp., promised to make use of those unemployed factory workers' skills and ventured to create jobs in the county.

In August, he was hired by Electric Motor Corp. as a spokesman. He also started driving a bread route for a LaPorte-based bakery.

He's had three or four speaking engagements in the Elkhart County area.

In February, after he introduced Obama in Elkhart, international media profiled Neufeldt and his unemployed family members -- two daughters and two sons in law. Now, one daughter and his two sons in law have returned to work in other fields. His other daughter is studying to be a nurse.

But people are still struggling.

"We've gone from 18 percent unemployment to 15 percent, but how many people are still out of jobs?" he said. "I think we need to find jobs for everyone instead of health care for everyone."

The 63-year-old likely has had a better year than the roughly 15 percent of Elkhart County residents who still are unemployed. Many of them lost their jobs -- like Neufeldt -- when RV factories closed their doors or reduced their payrolls. Neufeldt, however, hasn't forgotten them.

He vows to wear three green bracelets on his right arm until unemployment numbers drop. One symbolizes unemployment in Elkhart County. One symbolizes unemployment in Indiana, and one symbolizes unemployment in the United States. When unemployment in each category drops below 5 percent, he'll take the corresponding bracelet off.

He knows he might be wearing them for a while.

"If I do, I do," he said.

It happened in 2009:

* PRESIDENT OBAMA VISITED MICHIANA THREE TIMES IN 2009. He held a town hall meeting at Concord High School in Elkhart in February to rally public support for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. He came back to South Bend in May to deliver the commencement speech at Notre Dame amid controversy over abortion and encouraged people on both sides of the debate to find common ground. In August, he returned to the Navistar-owned Monaco RV building to announce $416 million in stimulus funding for electric vehicle manufacturing operations in Indiana, including $39.2 million for Navistar Inc.

* ON THE HEELS OF PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA'S VISIT TO ELKHART, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" poked fun at Obama for selling the stimulus plan via a road trip. Elkhart also received attention from Charles Gibson on ABC World News. Former presidential candidate and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee brought his Fox News show to the RV/MH Hall of Fame in March.

* JOURNALISTS FROM MSNBC.COM CAME TO ELKHART IN MARCH to start a long-term reporting project on the city. They aimed to tell the story of the national economic crisis through our community.

* OFFICIALS BROKE GROUND ON A NEW $15 MILLION IVY TECH ELKHART CAMPUS IN JULY. Construction was slated to be complete in 2010 with classes starting in early 2011.

* ELKHART COUNTY'S UNEMPLOYMENT PEAKED AT 18.9 PERCENT IN MARCH. That number was 13 percent higher than last March and was the largest 12-month increase in joblessness in the nation. That figure also represented the fourth-highest metropolitan jobless rate in the United States.

* THE JOHNSON STREET BRIDGE AND SIX SPAN BRIDGE UPGRADES caused more traffic and headaches for motorists. Although Beardsley Avenue off Johnson Street Bridge has reopened after being closed since September 2008, the two-lane structure east of the Six Span Bridge is running behind the December deadline. The Johnson Street Bridge is expected to be completed in August and Six Span is expected to be completed October 2011.

* DR. LESLEY M. SCHOLL, 50, OWNER OF OSOLO OCCUPATIONAL MEDICAL CLINICS, PLEADED GUILTY IN OCTOBER to illegal possession of a silencer and illegal possession of a machine gun in connection to an apparent plot to kill his estranged wife, her lawyer and a former business partner. The plea deal called for 15 years in prison.

* DR. PHILIP GABRIELE, 44, AND HIS WIFE MARCELLA GABRIELE, 43, WERE FOUND DEAD IN JUNE in his Elkhart Gabriele Eye Institute office in an apparent murder suicide. Both Gabrieles were indicted by a federal grand jury the week before on multiple counts of health care fraud, wire fraud and criminal conspiracy.

* AGENCIES STILL STRUGGLED IN THE DOWNTRODDEN ECONOMY BUT GIFT GIVING DIDN'T STOP. Feed The Children brought 13 semi-trailers filled with food and personal care items to 5,200 families in Elkhart County in March. In December, an anonymous couple donated $200,000 to United Way and $100,000 to Church Community Services in hopes the publicity would encourage others to give.

* DEMOLITION STARTED ON THE SHOPS AT THE CORNER OF MAIN AND FRANKLIN STREETS TO MAKE ROOM FOR THE ELCO THEATRE'S $11 MILLION EXPANSION. The project is exected to be completed in roughly 11 to 14 months, and the theatre will reopen as the Lerner Performing Arts Center.

* NOTRE DAME OFFICIALS FIRED FIVE-YEAR HEAD FOOTBALL COACH CHARLIE WEIS in late November after a 6-6 season. Former Cincinatti coach Brian Kelly was hired in December on a five-year contract.


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