Grace DeBoer walks four miles every day but she rarely makes it outside.
Holding down two jobs in the food service industry, Grace works 17-hour days waiting tables and prepping food for hungry customers. Still, she is barely able to pay her bills. Struggling to get ahead in the new economy, the 24-year-old is doing her best to rid herself of $20,000 of debt, much of it in medical bills, so she can move toward a brighter future.
On a chilly Thursday morning, I was with Grace as she began her day at 6:30 a.m. Our first stop was job number one, making sandwiches at Panera Bread bakery and cafe in Shererville, Ind. Our morning was spent prepping big catering platters. By 11 a.m., we were faced with the lunch stampede. Making sandwich after sandwich from scratch according to a customer's order, we ended up preparing 250 sandwiches by the end of our shift.
I was pretty pleased with our accomplishments, knowing we helped to feed 415 hungry customers. Then I remembered that was just the first job of the day. After 6 hours on our feet, we still had 10 hours to go at job number two: waitressing at Boston's Restaurant and Sports Bar.
"How long do you think you can keep this up, these double shifts?" I asked Grace.
"I don't know, until I finally go crazy," she laughed.
"What is the ultimate goal? To save a certain amount of money?" I asked her.
"Pay off my bills," Grace said. "I've got a lot of bills, especially hospital bills, because I didn't take care of myself and my diabetes for a while there. And I have to pay the cost now. I didn't have insurance. And I'm paying the price."
Grace lives at home with her parents and two sisters. A diabetic since childhood, her failure to manage her disease landed her in the hospital and, without health insurance, her bills starting piling up.
Grace started working at Panera in the summer of 2010 after being laid off from a job she loved, working as a teacher's aide for four years until her job was eliminated as a result of budget cuts. Encouraged by her boyfriend, who is going to school to become a restaurant manager, Grace decided to try working in the food industry too.
Now she's working two jobs trying to make ends meet. Despite knowing she'll be on her feet from sunup until long after sundown, Grace's bubbly and infectious personality helps her keep a positive attitude with customers.
"Did you ever think that you would be one of those people who would be holding down two jobs?" I asked her.
"Not really. Growing up I really thought I'd go to college, I'd get a job, possibly as a teacher. And I'd make it and be happy," Grace said.
CLICK HERE to read Grace's submission essay.
Not only does Grace turn on her smile for two shifts of customers, she has to remember two full menus, separate restaurant policies and different computer systems.
"Are there times when you just hit a brick wall? When you just can't take it any more, you're too exhausted?" I asked.
"Sometimes I'll go home and I'll just sit there and hug my pillow and cry. Because I'm working so hard and sometimes it feels like a dead end," Grace said. "But, when the bill gets paid, and I have a couple of extra bucks, it makes it worth it."
At 5 p.m., Grace and I were still on our feet, waiting tables at Boston's, just down the road from her first job.
By the end of her shift at Boston's six hours later, we have served more than a dozen tables, including 40 meals, 80 drinks and nearly $650 in sales.
Grace's total mileage for a day in the food service industry: four miles.
It was 11 p.m. when Grace headed home to get to bed. There she set her alarm for tomorrow, so she can get up and do it all again.