ABOUT NEEDIEST CASES
The Chattanooga Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund enters its 100th year helping those in need with donations from readers who generously give to a unique resource available year round. This year, the Neediest Cases Fund will be administered by United Way of Greater Chattanooga. Contributions, which are acknowledged in the newspaper, will be accepted through Dec. 31. Turn to Page Ax for instructions on how to give.
United Way of Greater Chattanooga will work with partner agencies in the area to help people with emergency needs as well as provide services, if possible, to help them become more self-sufficient and stable. Call 423-752-0353 if you or someone you know could benefit from the Neediest Cases Fund.
Jaime Simonds' never-ending day begins at 5:45 a.m., give or take a few minutes for one of the 11 alarms she has set to jostle her awake.
She puts her feet on the ground and gets her 2-year-old son, Eric, dressed before the day care bus pulls up at 6:30, and makes sure her 11-year-old little sister, Desiree, is up and getting ready for school.
Simonds has to leave in time to catch the 6:45 bus so she can make the right route connections to get to Chattanooga State Community College in time for class. She's done by 9:15 a.m., and rides the bus to make it home by 10:45.
She eats and tries to sleep before heading out for her 3:45 p.m. shift at Convergys Corp. She handles customer phone calls until 12:30 a.m. -- give or take a few minutes if a call goes long. She tries to be home by 1 a.m.
And then she sets the alarms again.
The 18-year-old sole breadwinner for a family of four expects that will be her routine for the next couple of years.
Simonds' mother has health problems and stays home to care for the children when they come home from school.
But Simonds doesn't complain about the daily grind. Every day is one day closer to her goals: To be a pediatrician, and a lawyer, and get another doctorate in something -- finance, perhaps. To buck people's stereotypes of the teen mom, and -- always -- to take care of her family.
"No matter what's going on, I'm getting there," Simonds said. " When I say I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it."
At Chattanooga State -- where she has received some scholarships -- she hopes to get through nursing school, then head to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to prepare for a career in medicine. And she's not wasting any time.
"She's incredibly brilliant. I haven't seen anybody who can do the things that she does," said David Porter, who along with his wife helped foster Simonds and the kids for about a year and is still involved in their lives. "She can read 120 pages in an hour. And she's basically supporting her family by herself, and making straight A's."
Simonds applied for the Convergys job the day she turned 18. She barely has time to study, much less hang out with friends. When asked if she has time for the typical stuff 18-year-olds do with their free time, Simonds says she isn't sure what that is supposed to mean.
"If I have time, I like to spend it with the family," she said. "I'm not going to waste money on going out to eat when I can make food here. That's ridiculous."
What fuels her? At an elemental level, energy drinks. But mainly her faith, she says. And the reality that her family depends on her.
"You can't just quit," she said. "You can't just stop when you don't feel like it. I'm not going to let my family down."
But laser focus, big dreams and a tireless work ethic aren't always enough to pay the bills. It is difficult for a $10-an-hour wage to keep pace with a four-member family's expenses, and falling behind on bills can happen in no time.
"Once you get behind, it is hard to catch up," Simonds said.
Last year, Simonds was able to use $288.32 from the Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund through the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults to pay the family's power and water bills while she was trying to finish high school.
The Neediest Cases Fund seeks to provide year-round assistance to help people like Simonds, who find themselves with basic -- yet crucial -- needs that cannot be met through traditional sources for one reason or another. The amounts granted by the fund can be as small as $35 to get food on the table to as much as a couple of hundred dollars to keep the lights on and water running.
Last year, the Neediest Cases Fund campaign raised $57,000 from more than 450 donors. The money was used to help hundreds of people in need.
This year's campaign begins today.
Sometimes, stories about Neediest Cases Fund recipients and their journeys to self-sufficiency and stability motivate people to do even more. After a Times Free Press story about Simonds ran last year, she received several anonymous donations from admirers. All have been stepping stones, links to get from month to month.
The challenges continue for Simonds. Every dollar still counts. Porter says it is hard to get Jaime to ask for help, and that her deep loyalty to her family means she'll never try to strike out on her own.
While the kids are chattering excitedly about Christmas and presents, she feels a quiet dread about where she'll find the money to buy presents.
But she'll figure it out, she says. Today, on Thanksgiving, she insists the family will sit down to a big meal together.
And she has her list of what she is thankful for: That her family is back together. That the bill collectors are working with them. And her job.
"It can be tough," she said. "But slowly but surely we're getting there."
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.