Sharon Collins simply couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel.
After fleeing her violent stepfather at age 17, she had been homeless on and off for 25 years. She and her husband were living in his parents' basement in Texas when she left him in May. Her sister picked her up and brought her to the place she had always found comfort -- Chattanooga.
Since she was 8, Collins had been in the entertainment industry in California. A self-proclaimed "Hollywood girl," she dreamed of being a singer and model and wanted to use her money to bring peace to the world.
But abusive relationships, loss of employment and the poor economy led her to a life of hopping around from one place to another.
"I got tired of losing everything," she said. "I've lost everything, my birth certificate, modeling pictures, videos I've done, clothes, all the things I've collected."
In times of distress, she always ended up in the Chattanooga area.
This time, she arrived with only two black trash bags full of clothes and her 2-year-old daughter, Aaralynn, to make the Scenic City her permanent home.
She's had three children in all. A daughter, born with a bad heart, was put up for adoption because Collins couldn't care for her financially. She shares custody of a son, 16, with his father, but she hasn't had the money for several years to visit the boy in Alabama.
Once in Chattanooga, Collins put pride aside and started calling all the agencies in the area to figure out what programs she qualified for. She landed in the family counseling services at the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults.
"Here I was, the one always wanting to give. It was hard," the 42-year-old said, sitting in her Hixson apartment. "I thought, 'This was not supposed to be my life.' I was supposed to be the one giving, not taking."
Back in June, when she moved into her apartment, Collins needed $200 to get the electricity turned on. Her credit had been wiped out, she said, and she couldn't come up with the money.
Her case manager requested the money from the Times Free Press Neediest Cases, a fund of last resort.
"I don't know what I would have done" if the Neediest Cases hadn't come through, said Laurel Sapp, her case manager at the Partnership.
Having electricity made Collins' apartment a home.
"Without electricity you can't cook, you can't do laundry," she said.
In the last six months, Collins said, she has gone from nothing to finally having the family she never had, a home and a job she truly enjoys.
Her husband, Steve, moved to Chattanooga from Texas, and she recently was granted custody of her ex-husband's 17-year-old daughter, Taylor.
But Sapp said the path hasn't been smooth and there were many times Collins wanted to quit.
"She has definitely learned how to survive and move beyond surviving," she said. "At first she wanted to do this for her daughter, but now she also wants to do it for her[self]."
Collins is still an entertainer at heart. She worries about her appearance and always tries to look presentable, makeup done to the last detail, something Aaralynn likes to imitate.
She also sings in a rock 'n' roll band, Shay La V, that played its first concert last month to benefit the Needy Children's Fund of East Ridge.
And this year, for the first time, she had a true Thanksgiving -- not a day where she could only try to find something to eat or hope someone invited her over because she couldn't afford a turkey, but a real dinner she enjoyed with her family and friends.
"One thing I want to say is, 'Let go of the pride. The system works, and don't get on it just to be on it, get on it as a resource to get above it,'" she said.
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