published Thursday, August 21st, 2014

Kennedy: Lifted by love in St. Elmo

Three weeks ago in this space we shared the story of Rich and Kelly, a young St. Elmo couple having trouble making ends meet.

The pair, already with one 12-year-old child, had recently taken in two more children -- Rich's little nieces, ages 2 and 3 -- due to urgent family circumstances. The girls were thriving and the little house in St. Elmo was a joyful place, but Rich and Kelly were falling behind on their bills. The girls needed new clothes and healthy food, and the new child-care responsibilities were eating into the couple's work time.

Rich, a handyman, and Kelly, a waitress, had taken out some payday loans. They felt like they were sinking financially and were even talking about moving back to Ohio, Kelly's home, to share space with family. Once known as the hard-working pillars of their extended families, Rich and Kelly had suddenly begun to feel like failures. When you live paycheck to paycheck, even a few hundred dollars of debt can feel like a million, they said.

Still, in their hearts, Chattanooga felt like home. They were torn up by thoughts of leaving. From almost the moment they arrived three years ago, things had felt different here. Their neighbors were upbeat and helpful.

"Living here has made us better people," Rich, a New Englander, told me last month.

But just when the sky seemed darkest, when nagging debt seemed like it might sink the hard-working little family, something remarkable happened. Friends had secretly set up a crowd-funding site, a place online where people could go and contribute a few bucks to help the couple. Rich and Kelly didn't know about the Web page at first, and wouldn't have approved if they had, the friends said.

But the morning their story hit the newspaper, Rich and Kelly had to break out the Kleenex. By then aware of the website, they watched the Internet in amazement as donations from complete strangers began to accumulate. Times Free Press readers were apparently determined to prove their instincts correct, that Chattanooga is a different kind of city.

"It was like wildfire the first day," Kelly remembers. "It was crazy. We just sat there saying, 'Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!'"

Meanwhile, the donations kept streaming in. Five dollars. Fifty dollars. One-hundred dollars.

Could this really be happening, the pair thought?

Some of the visitors to the website left messages of encouragement.

"There is good left in humanity!" one visitor wrote.

Another said she was experiencing hard times herself but offered to babysit the children if it would help.

People called and emailed the newspaper hoping to alert Rich about potential remodeling jobs.

A 92-year-old St. Elmo woman telephoned the newspaper and asked for the couple's mailing address. She wasn't on the Internet, she said, but she still wanted to help.

A retired woman made an anonymous donation of $1,000.

By late last week the crowd-funding site, gofundme.com/richandkelly, had tallied $3,166, not counting a few snail-mail contributions.

When I caught up with Rich and Kelly last week, they were both overflowing with gratitude.

"To see a community come together like that ... it was nuts," Kelly said while on a break between shifts at the steak house where she works. "We are grateful and overwhelmed. It took us out of a bad place. It helped us when we thought it was just us against the world."

Kelly said the couple's first order of business was to wipe away those payday loans.

When the lenders suggested they pay off the old loans and take out a new one, Kelly's response was quick and decisive, "Nope. Nope. No. Absolutely not."

The couple bought some needed clothes for their three girls and put the rest of the money into a small emergency fund, she said.

And about that move to Ohio?

"We're not going anywhere," Kelly says.

"I'm not leaving Chattanooga," Rich says emphatically. "No way. I love this city!"

Meanwhile, the real legacy of this story is not whether Kelly and Rich stay in Chattanooga forever, although I hope they do.

This is what I'll remember: Kelly's 12-year-old daughter, who was caught up in the joy of seeing a financial cloud lifted from her family, immediately announced that she wants to volunteer at a homeless shelter and give some of her clothes away to charity.

For those of you who donated to Rich and Kelly, or simply prayed for them, how's that for a return on your investment?

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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