A Chattanooga holiday tradition dates back to a Christmas Day decades ago when Adolph Ochs ate a big turkey dinner and then took a stroll through New York City.
It was 1911 and Ochs, the publisher of The New York Times and the former publisher of the Chattanooga Times, came across a ragged man who had just been given Christmas dinner at the YMCA, according to an account in the New York Times. Ochs handed the man a few dollars and his business card and told him to come see him if he was looking for a job.
“The encounter left the publisher thinking about charity,” the Times report states. “Helping a stranger had given him a sense of satisfaction, and he wondered if one man’s feeling might be the basis for a city’s goodwill.”
Instead of making a direct appeal for money, the next year Ochs assigned a reporter to write stories about the poor — about the facts and details of their daily lives, about their challenges, their individual stories.
The Neediest Cases campaign began Dec. 15, 1912. Two years later, Ochs extended the program to Chattanooga.
Today, the Neediest Cases fund still allows people to help strangers.
Each year from Thanksgiving through the end of the year, the Times Free Press asks its readers to donate to Neediest Cases. Money goes to the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults. All of the money raised stays in this community and helps people struggling here.
Sandra Hollett, the Partnership’s chief executive officer, said one story sticks with her.
The fund paid for a heater that a woman used to warm the room where her husband lay dying. That small purchase — a portable heater — provided some comfort to the man in his last days and for the wife who cared for and then mourned him.
“That is a story that haunts me and inspires me,” Hollett said.
With nation’s economy stagnant, a wider group of people are turning to the fund. It now reaches what Partnership case workers call the “newly marginalized,” people who are not typically considered poor.
They’re, say, a couple who lived paycheck to paycheck and then one of them loses their job and they go from two paychecks to one. Suddenly, they can’t stretch that one paycheck to cover everything. Paying the rent or mortgage starts to compete with keeping the lights on or filling the car with gas.
It’s difficult for this group of people to ask for help, Hollett said.
“This is a trend we’ve seen for the last three years,” she said. “The needs have increased dramatically in our community with the recession and people out of work.”
This year, the fund had helped 424 people by the end of September, the most recent figures available. They number should reach 500 by year’s end.
Neediest Cases is a “fund of last resort,” Hollett says — the place people go when they desperately need something but have not other options.
Donations came in all forms — some donors write big checks; some turn in a fistful of coins every year. Every cent counts.
The stories of those helped are not always dramatic or life-changing.
Sometimes the money buys new tires or pays an electric bill. One time it allowed someone who could afford only a magnifying glass to get new glasses. But those small amounts allow someone to drive to work or stay warm on an icy night or see clearly. Little things many of us take for granted.
Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at email@example.com. To donate the Neediest Cases fund, go to timesfreepress.com/neediestcases.