After Jameelah Townsend lost her job as a customer service representative and her husband, Eddie, stopped getting calls to clean carpets or do other odd jobs, the couple decided it was time they looked at their options.
"We were getting by on unemployment, then he started going to school and I had a baby," said Townsend. She was also the mother of two boys ages 11 and 16. By the time she got her daughter in daycare and started to look for a job "there was nothing out there."
The couple both say education is the only path to get ahead in life, but getting there is the challenge.
With neither of them finding full-time jobs and her husband requiring foot surgery, they have fallen behind on some payments. This month their electricity was about to get disconnected.
"It's not that we haven't had a hard time before but it's never been this bad, it's never been to where we just did not have any way, any resources whatsoever to get our bills paid," she said.
They eventually were referred to the Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund, which was able to come through for the family of five and provide the $109.62 needed to keep the lights on.
Neediest Cases is a fund of last resort that the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults uses to help those who have exhausted all other options.
Advocates say helping those less fortunate is more important than ever right now, with need high, the economy struggling and winter -- when more people tend to seek help -- approaching.
Starting today until the end of the year, the newspaper asks its readers to donate to the Neediest Cases Fund. The money will go directly to the Partnership to continue helping people like the Townsends all year around.
"The Neediest Cases, these are particular cases where there may not be another channel or outlet for those families or individuals to turn to," said Chattanooga Times Free Press President Jason Taylor.
"The Partnership for Families, Children and Adults use the Neediest Cases to fund those things that maybe other fundraisers can't, like a family that needs a certain medication, or a family that needs a book for class or a backpack," he added.
Since the start of the recession, the agency reports serving far more people who had never needed help before.
"The newly marginalized population, these are people who were secure and might be getting by but maybe one in the couple lost their job and things are getting very tight," said Sandra Hollett, chief executive officer for the Partnership.
Neediest Cases 2010: timesfreepress.com/neediestcases
"And while there are a wonderful array of services available in our community, I think all of the nonprofit service providers are being hit hard because of the sheer volume of need in our community," she added.
During the 2009-10 fiscal year, the agency served a total of 74,514 people. That's up 50 percent from the 49,625 people served in the previous fiscal year.
Of the nearly 75,000 who received help last year, 360 received some sort of aid from the Neediest Cases Fund, with $63,710 distributed -- more than what was raised in 2008 thanks to reserves the agency sets aside to ensure there will be funds available to clients in need.
Through Oct. 31 of this year, the fund already has helped 403 clients and Hollett said they expect to see a lot more people in the coming months because that's when most people request help, especially for things such as electric bills.
"While the needs remain the same, people are thrust into dire situations for different reasons, some of it is basic economics, for some it's medical," said Hollett.
"A small gift can help them turn their lights back on or take care of a prescription, give them food that not only helps solve the immediate problem, but it gives them hope, which is an important thing for people in that situation," she added.
Donations to Neediest Cases during the 2009 campaign hit the fund's highest level since 2000, records show. In 2009, more than 400 donors gave $98,713 -- including a $50,000 anonymous donation -- compared with $47,199 in 2008 and $42,901 in 2000.
Dr. Deborah Arfken, coordinator of university planning and a professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has been giving to the Neediest Cases for about six years now. It's one more thing that goes on her to-do list every year, she said.
"It's a very well-established fund that the Partnership can use for situations that just happen on the spur of the moment that you might not know otherwise," she said. "They are often very simple kinds of needs, but they are crucial to the person who needs them."
Jameelah Townsend said it took her a while to swallow her pride and accept the fact the family needed help. Coming from a college-educated family, she said she was the black sheep who now finally understands what her parents were trying to tell her all those years.
"I had to tell myself, 'You are not just trying to sit at home and collect money.' I'm actually trying to better my life and I just need a little help now," said the 31-year-old in her Hixson apartment. "It's like getting over a humongous hump."
Eddie Townsend went back to school in the fall of 2008 and is taking the prerequisite classes to start the radiology program. He started a health information management program in the summer of 2009 and hopes to finish by 2012.
Both of them are in an English class together and oftentimes school becomes a family conversation, they said.
Their oldest son, Kurston, 16, helps his father with his math, while 11-year-old Khalil and his mother help each other with science. Daughter Khaia is now 18 months old.
"Education is important to me because I know where it's going to lead me," said Eddie Townsend, who graduated from high school in 1991.
"Once we get our degrees, I know life is going to be great. It's the here and now that's the problem," said the 37-year-old described by his wife as a man of all trades.
Meanwhile, both continue to fill out applications and hope they will get a call soon. Although they know it will be difficult to manage school, work and home, they say they'll manage.
"It's something you just have to do," said Eddie Townsend.