The big dogs from the Big Three automakers made their way to Capitol Hill last week, parking their corporate jets in favor of a little ride in, get this, cars.

How about that?

All to line up and grovel for billions in bailouts.

Of course, the only line we regular folks get a spot in is the ever-growing unemployment line, with more than a half-million jobs lost in November alone. Apparently, help is called a handout only when the working poor are involved.

Instead of camping out on the Hill, maybe Messrs. Chrysler, Ford and GM should seek advice from some of the women at Home Care Associates, who have found a way to bail themselves out while also investing in themselves.

From all indications, this economic downturn will have an open run. Jobs are as scarce as buyers for Chryslers. Even service-sector jobs, once a secure bet, are on the decline.

If we've learned anything as one company after another topples, it's that we've got to have our own backs.

Which is exactly Home Care Associates' philosophy.

Composed mostly of former welfare recipients, the 200-employee company provides an invaluable service that anybody with an ailing loved one depends on for peace of mind - home health care.

It's no surprise that it's a booming business. Look in the mirror: We're all getting older and more dependent. Especially in Pennsylvania, where the senior population is among the most rapidly growing in the nation - and expected to grow by 50 percent in the next 20 years.

Yes, the work can be grueling. But talk to anybody who does it well and she'll tell you the rewards far exceed the demands.

Granted, not everybody is cut out for this kind of work, which is why many workers wash out. And the relatively low skill requirements that some agencies accept, along with low pay, make for high turnover.

But HCA has tried to solve some of those problems with a rigorous four-week training program and a 90-day on-the-job probationary period.

Trust and reliability

"You need to have people who will go into someone's home and do the work and be trustworthy," says president Karen Kulp, who is credited with helping put the once-struggling company in the black. "Before there was very little screening. Now we spend a lot of time on the front end."

The workers who survive training average about $9.50 an hour. That may not sound like a lot, but the pay is offset by a health and pension plan, life insurance, paid vacations, and free SEPTA TransPasses.

And because the company is worker-owned, each employee is eligible for a stake. A $500 share entitles one to a portion of the profits and a vote at shareholders' meetings.

But most important, home health aides are able reclaim something that money can't buy - their dignity, which they are then able to help sustain in their clients.

Take Terrell Cannon. When a welfare caseworker referred her to HCA in 1993, Cannon was pregnant, unemployed and angry.

She used her anger as a defense. After all, she came from the Richard Allen Homes project. She always handled disputes with her fists.

Today Cannon is HCA's director of training and has a master's degree in human services. Her work has taught the mother of four patience and kindness.

Plus, HCA handed Cannon a much-needed Christmas gift - a $1,200 year-end dividend, which all worker-owners received.

But when you talk to the women, they'll tell you that the most important thing - more than the money, more than the benefits, more than job security - is the gratification of just doing the work.

They call it "heartwork," because "if you don't do it from the heart, it makes it hard to do," Cannon explains.

Which is why Simone Everett, 23, thought nothing of spending an hour to assist her client, Sharon Holmes, up a flight of 27 steps to a third-floor apartment, a task she does every time Holmes has a doctor's appointment.

Everett used to work in customer service. But this kind of personal, hands-on work gives her a fulfillment she had never thought she'd feel.

"You feel better helping people with the important things rather than the silly stuff."

Holmes, 36, who suffered a stroke in March, says: "I love Simone. I don't know what I'd do without her because I can't depend on nobody."

In these days of no guarantees, trust is the greatest gift.