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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Last week, Martha Atlas ceased to be invisible.
"I'm very excited," the 62-year-old Prairie Village, Kan., woman said. "And a little scared."
Confident and energetic, a self-described "bubbly" person by nature, Atlas concedes that it bothers her to admit that nearly two hard years of unemployment made her feel at times as if she didn't exist.
No one fired her from her former job. A successful fundraiser, she left voluntarily in 2010, thinking a brighter future was ahead. Always connected, she knew people. What would it take to land another job? Six months?
But then came month after month of shipping off resumes. Of making phone calls. Of setting up lunch meetings and coming within a breath of being hired, only to be ignored, denied or sent email rejections.
She was bent on remaining positive.
"It's exhausting to be around someone who is down, dour or grumpy," she said.
Words she never associated with herself - "invisible," "embarrassing," "loser" - crept unwanted into her thinking.
Except now she's among the lucky few.
Atlas recently began a new job fundraising for the Folly Theater.
The life lessons of protracted unemployment and employment are fresh in her mind, as they are for others who have landed jobs in the past year.
There is Clark Pickett, 59, of Raytown, Mo., an accounting analyst who was out of work for the better part of three years.
There is Deidre Anderson, 41, a nonprofit executive director from Raymore, Mo., who found herself relying on the same food stamps she used to recommend to her clients.
She and the others who have found jobs know just how fortunate they are. While the Labor Department reported this month that the unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent in August from 8.3 percent in July, that was because more people stopped looking for work and so were no longer counted as unemployed.
Nationwide, employers created 96,000 jobs last month, well off the 125,000 that economists had projected.
Employed once again, Atlas and the others speak not only of the joy and relief of rejoining the workforce, but also of the importance of holding out hope and counting the blessings in their lives. As well as anyone, they know how long-term unemployment has tested them and challenged their views on everything from money to family to the values they held dear.
Deidre Anderson speaks without hesitation.
"My life was my career."
She knows that isn't how it should be and that a person is not wholly defined by work. It's what they do, not who they are.
But for Anderson - a single mother of two girls, ages 19 and 6 - it matters a great deal. She is her job, a fact that made her year of unemployment all the more onerous. She spent her entire career helping disadvantaged children and families. Most recently, it was for a decade in the Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City. Before that, it was working with foster kids and others with difficulties.
"My career is part of why I believe I'm here. . I help people," Anderson said.
"Nothing is worse than getting a rejection, having someone tell you, 'We wish we had a place for you, but you're overqualified' or 'We don't think you'd be happy in this position,' " Anderson said. "It's like, 'Let me be the judge of that. I have kids to feed.' "
She was educated, with a master's degree and a lifetime of experience. Nothing was coming, and she could feel depression setting in.
"It is a great sense of lost identity," Anderson said. "It was hard to get out of bed, feeling helpless some of the time. . But not hopeless. I have never felt hopeless."
That, she said, was the key. Even with no work coming in, she focused on what she knew how to do: help others. She persevered, got out and volunteered at her church and a homeless shelter.
In the midst of helping others, she got the call. A job. Good pay. A cause she believed in.
For her, being back at work means "making a contribution where I know it will make a difference," Atlas said. "And I like that."