Every year during the holiday season, the Chattanooga Times Free Press asks its readers to donate to the Neediest Cases Fund, administered by the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults year round to help local residents whose needs cannot be met through traditional sources. All contributions are acknowledged in the newspaper. This year’s fundraising effort will continue through Dec. 31.
Jaime Simonds is going to be a pediatrician. And a lawyer. And get another doctorate in something — she just isn't sure what it is yet.
But before Christmas this year, the 17-year-old just wanted to keep the lights on for her newly reunited family.
It's been almost six months since Simonds, her sister Desiree, 10, and the teen's son Eric, 1, moved in with Simonds' mother after all three kids spent about a year in foster care.
The family's Christmas tree brightens up the living room with its flashing lights. But in November, they weren't sure if those lights would be on.
When their mother got bronchitis earlier this year, the illness kept her from work and left the family without any source of income for about two weeks.
Right now, their mother, who asked not to be named, is the sole supporter of the family while Simonds works to complete her high school diploma.
Bills started piling up, and the family's water and electricity came close to being turned off.
Simonds knew she had to ask for help, even though her mother was hesitant.
The teen knew she had to do something to ensure her family's well-being, and turned to Jack Parks, the director of youth services at Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, whom she worked with while in foster care.
"It's always hard to ask for help," Simonds said. "Some agencies, they look down at you and think a lot less of you because you ask for help. Sometimes, you've just got to let your pride down."
Parks used $288.32 from the Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund to pay the family's power and water bills. Youth services also donated two bus passes for Simonds and her mother to use, because they do not have a vehicle.
Now, Simonds can focus on school, where she is enrolled in an adult learning program through East Ridge High School and Chattanooga State Community College.
Since starting the program in October, Simonds has managed to complete four of her six courses, including finishing her economics course in four days, something program coordinators told her had never been done before.
"A lot of people criticize me because I'm 17 and I have an almost 2-year-old son," Simonds said. "They think I'm not going to finish high school or go to college."
She doesn't want to give up her goals and dreams, and become another stereotype, she said.
Simonds has a lot of goals, starting with attending Chattanooga State in the fall to begin her degree in a pre-medical school field. Then, she's moving on to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and finally to all of her graduate degrees.
"I have little patience for people who are stupid, who don't take the opportunities that are in front of them," Simonds said. "If you've got an opportunity to make your life better then you should."
David Porter, who along with his wife helped foster Simonds and her family, talks about the kids with the same pride as any biological parent.
It's Porter who told Simonds she should consider a career in law. He thinks she would make a great lawyer, she said.
"She's brilliant," Porter said.
Even though the Simonds family is no longer under the Porters' care, the former foster parents are still involved in the kids' lives. Porter regularly takes them to doctor appointments or other places that would be hard to get to on the bus.
"It's been very rewarding to help people who are going to be successful if they get a chance or two," Porter said. "I can't let them drop through the cracks."
Wherever Simonds ends up, she's not going to abandon her family, either.
In the family's house, toys lie scattered around the floor, and Eric and Desiree bound up and down the halls, flipping around on the couch.
"I don't know what I'd do without them," Simonds said. "It's boring without them."
And they're just part of what drives her to succeed.
"I don't need any more self-motivation," Simonds said. "I'm going places, you watch."
Rachel Bunn is originally from Ellijay, Ga., and graduated from the University of Georgia with degrees in magazines and history. While at UGA, she wrote for the student magazine UGAzine, served as news editor for the student newspaper, The Red & Black, and spent a semester studying British history at Oxford University in Oxford, England. She has previously worked at The Rockdale Citizen in Conyers, Ga., and The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the ...