published Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Couple lends a hand, gets a hand in return


by Naomi Jagoda
Amy Hicks Tolley, 35, looks out her front door in St. Elmo. Tolley received help from Neediest Cases to get her gas utility reconnected.
Amy Hicks Tolley, 35, looks out her front door in St. Elmo. Tolley received help from Neediest Cases to get her gas utility reconnected.
Photo by Tim Barber.

The sign on Amy and Charles Tolley's front door reads "hope."

That's what they gave 17-year-old Wendy Perez when they took her in to help her further her education.

But it came at a cost for the couple.

In September 2010, the Tolleys began providing Perez kinship care, meaning they had financial responsibility for her but she was not in foster care or adopted. The Tolleys met Perez, then 17, at a Halloween event at the Tolleys' church.

Perez said her mother, a Guatemalan immigrant, had other plans for her that did not involve graduating from high school.

But helping Perez brought extra expenses -- food and clothes for an additional person, furniture for Perez's bedroom, adding Perez to the Tolleys' health insurance. And those were only some of the extra costs, Amy Tolley, 35, said.

The April 27 tornadoes added extra complications. The family lost power in their St. Elmo home for about eight days.

"We lost almost all of our food," Amy Tolley said. This caused the family to eat out, which was more expensive.

Meanwhile, they weren't making more money to meet the expenses and support their family, which in addition to Perez includes Amy Tolley's stepson and several dogs.

Amy Tolley, 35, works at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and Charles Tolley is a guard at the Hamilton County Juvenile Detention Center.

The Tolleys got behind on their bills, which caused the gas in their home to be shut off in the spring.

"It wasn't cold anymore. We weren't using it," Amy Tolley said.

But in October, it started to get cold. The Tolleys would bundle up under blankets. And though the house has water heated by electricity, the Tolleys had to step out of hot showers into a cold house.

"Showers were interesting," Amy Tolley said.

Charles Tolley called the gas company first. The company gave him a price to get the gas turned back on but said that Amy Tolley had to call because the account was in her name.

When Amy Tolley called, they gave her a higher quote for the reconnection fee, she said. And because they couldn't schedule the company to come to their house until a week later, the reconnection fee got even higher.

The gas was reconnected in October, Amy Tolley said, and the bill came in December.

The Tolleys have been working with the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults' Consumer Credit Counseling Service division since March to get their finances under control. In the course of assembling papers so that the Tolleys could get a mortgage modification, caseworker Tina Williams said she discovered the $478.17 gas bill and helped them get assistance through the Chattanooga Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund.

"They didn't ask for it in the first place," Williams said. "This was a one-time hand-up to get them through the month of December."

Williams said the Tolleys' reconnection fee was high because their credit score had dropped. She appreciates that the Tolleys are facing their debt, rather than running from it.

"Both of them work very hard. They're not waiting on a handout," she said. "I feel like they're going to be victorious in the end."

Amy Tolley said the Neediest Cases aid allowed her to have one fewer thing to worry about. She said she was starting to get stressed about getting further behind financially -- especially because their car died recently and she was worried about payments for the new car.

She said that if she had to do it all over again, she would still take Perez in.

"[The Bible] teaches that you should help your fellow man," she said.

At Perez's high school graduation, Amy Tolley was proud, but she was even prouder when she moved Perez into Tennessee Weslyan College, where Perez recently finished her first semester.

"I knew that high school was just a stepping stone," Amy Tolley said.

Perez -- who pays for college herself through scholarships, grants and loans and has made amends with her mother -- is appreciative that her surrogate family received aid, especially since she feels as if she's part of the reason the Tolleys have financial difficulties.

"I'm kind of glad that they're getting help," she said. "It has meant a whole much to me [that they took me in]."

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