Union Democrat staff

For months now, we've been hearing that the Great Recession is ending and that good times are, if not right around the corner, at least no more than a few blocks up the road.

So it wasn't much of a Christmas present for those of us in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties to learn that unemployment, already in double figures, had in November soared to the highest rates in nearly 20 years (13.7 and 15.1 percent).

Or that the counties' populations, long among the fastest growing in California, were actually declining: Between July 2008 and July 2009, Tuolumne lost 775 residents and Calaveras 127.

The reason? It's clear: a lack of family-wage jobs.

As brutal as the above numbers are, it's difficult to believe that we can still take care of our own. The young, the homeless, the hungry, the ill and the handicapped, one might easily conclude, must really be hurting as the foothill economy continues to struggle.

But thanks to grants, community involvement and hard work, we're getting the job done.

Take Groveland, which just this month got a new, 1,440-square-foot, $370,000 youth center. The modular building, largely funded by a grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, will be in Mary Laveroni Park.

It replaces a double-wide trailer that served South County youngsters at Ferretti Road and Bisordi Street for more than three decades. But for years that old building has been in disrepair and plagued by an inefficient heating and air conditioning system.

The 2006 HUD grant was the breakthrough that made the project possible.

"A great asset in a perfect place," said Tuolumne County Supervisor John Gray.

But not all our help comes from hulking, impersonal agencies in Washington, D.C. Our real hometown hero is the Sonora Area Foundation, which over its nearly 13-year history has dispensed more than $9 million in grants.

Few facets of Tuolumne County have not been improved or enhanced by the foundation during its generous tenure. This became abundantly clear last May, when the SAF's SOS matching-fund campaign in one month raised more than $500,000 for Meals on Wheels, the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency food bank and Interfaith Community Services.

And, in the quarter that followed, the foundation dispensed $90,000 more: Senior Peer Counseling, a Behavioral Health Department program, got $30,000. SmileKeepers, a Tuolumne County Schools Office dental care program, got $30,000. And the remainder was split between proposals ranging from historical research on early black settlers in the Mother Lode to helping the Economic Development Authority start a small business development center.

Finally, there was the one that got away.

That would be the $100,000 in funding a huge federal spending bill promised the library in Jamestown, Calif. Trouble is, our Jamestown doesn't have a library, and Jamestown, S.C., which was supposed to get the cash, does.

So the mistake will be fixed and, alas, we'll be out 100 grand.

But Jamestown, with help from the Sonora Area Foundation, within the past two years got itself a $70,000 historic jail and a $1 million restored locomotive.

So, who knows what 2010 might bring? Especially if it includes that long-awaited economic turnaround.