It's 3 o'clock on a busy Saturday before Christmas at Bloomington's Eastland Mall.

Outside, motorists troll for the next parking space close to the door.

In Bethlehem, Wise Men looked for a star but some 2,015 years later, they'd first be looking for parking place.

Inside, it is just as manic.

That last trip to the mall before Christmas can be harrowing — particularly if it's your first.

In front of the JCPenney store, near a path that also leads to Kohl's, are a group of folk ringing bells for The Salvation Army.

Nothing unusual there, either.

Except that you then notice those ringing are a group of out-of-work Mitsubishi Motors employees.

"Shouldn’t you guys be the ones asking for help this Christmas, instead of trying to raise it for someone else?" you ask.

In unison, they all laugh.

“We may be out of jobs,” says Ralph Timan, 52, a former union president, wagging one of the bells, “but this is what we've done for so many years. It’s not easy to suddenly become something else.”

Next to him are two others of more than 25 years at the plant that quit manufacturing cars on Nov. 30 — Stacy Shaw-Cameron and Lisa Parker, both also company “lifers” whose company ran out of life before they did.

“This isn’t exactly how I’d hoped to spend this Christmas — out of work,” says Shaw-Cameron, 53, a single mom of three, one of whom is in college. “But this job, in all honesty — it was a life blessing for me and that's why I am here. The plant closing doesn’t stop the meaning of Christmas.”

Mitsubishi’s end in Bloomington-Normal was long predicted.

Just after it opened in 1988, in fact, then a joint venture between Chrysler and Mitsubishi, critics predicted it wouldn’t last more than five years.

In 2004, when the night shift was ended, its staff cut from about 4,000 to 1,800, and the number of cars produced annually lowered from 222,000 at its peak (in 2000) to about 80,000, the naysayers reared up again.

Then this summer, coincidentally as sales increased but mostly in "emerging" markets like Indonesia and Russia, its corporate board announced on July 27 that the plant would close in only 125 days, on Nov. 30.

“We were all a little shocked,” says Timan.

Since the closing have been job fairs and resource fairs for shuttered workers (1,200 at the end; average age: 55) at the United Auto Workers hall in Bloomington.

There have been parties, gatherings and get-togethers, part holiday, part so-long, part-OK-now-what?

Divisions within the plant — in Chassis, in Paint, in Quality Control, in Human Resources — have gotten together one last time, over holiday garland and maybe beers, to toast the years and the 3.3 million vehicles they produced.

One employee, Terry Campbell, even launched a special “mitsubishisurvivors.com” website.

“It’s been sad, sure,” says Parker. “But life goes on. You know how it is – when one door closes, another opens. We’ll all get through this.”

In a town that before Mitsubishi had pretty much just been about hawking insurance, offering higher education or making Beer Nuts, the car manufacturer made a significant imprint since then. The loss of Mitsubishi has many ripple effects, including one not often thought about — how many dollars also will be lost to charity. 

In its 27 years, as an example, Mitsubishi employees donated $3.2 million to United Way of McLean County.

“Needless to say,” says Maggie Nichols, director of resource development for United Way, “that will really be missed.”

This Christmas, thanks to fundraising, employees still donated nearly $4,000 to Toys For Tots.

“There are some very needy out there,” says Rod DeVary, current Local 2488 president, “and that just doesn’t end for us.”

For The Salvation Army, UAW workers rang bells for seven two-hour shifts this season, even after they were out of work.

At Western Avenue Community Center, Roosevelt “Rosey” Goff, 60, another of Mitsubishi’s 27-year employees, continued to coach girls’ basketball teams and still had members of Western Avenue girls teams visit Heritage Health nursing homes during Christmas-time to donate "slip-proof" socks to residents, followed by a meal for the girls at Pizza Ranch.

“When someone does something for you as a kid, I've always thought that helps make you want to do the same once you become an adult," says Goff. "I got helped as a kid growing up in Detroit. Since then, I've always wanted to do that for others. Because of my experience, it became my nature."

And so it went the other Saturday afternoon — coincidentally as many Mitsubishi Motors-produced vehicles trolled the Eastland Mall lots — a nice-sized contingent of those who made them in 27 years also met at Eastland.

There, they rang bells for The Salvation Army one last time.

But rather than holding out a hand for themselves, even if now jobless, they again rang them to help others instead.

"That's just what Christmas is," said Shaw-Cameron. And she went back to ringing some more.

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