Every year during the holiday season, the Chattanooga Times Free Press asks its readers to donate to the Neediest Cases Fund, administered by the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults year-round to help local residents whose needs cannot be met through traditional sources. All contributions are acknowledged in the newspaper. This year's fundraising effort will continue through Dec. 31.
Phyllis Cosper never expected to finish her college degree. For many years, there was only pain when she opened her books to study. The man she was with would scream at her, beat her, tell her to get her focus straight.
Still, she desperately wanted to finish her work at Virginia College so she could make her own money and own her life. The only way to move toward that was to run away from the relationship she was in and hide out at the women's shelter run by the Partnership for Families, Children, and Adults.
Now, several years later, she is thousands of miles away with an associate degree, and she credits the change to the time she spent in the shelter and the help she received there from the Partnership and the Neediest Cases Fund.
"He didn't want me to be successful," said Cosper, 52. "I didn't have broken bones. I wasn't cut up. It was verbal abuse. More verbal abuse. Mental abuse. I was put on academic probation at school [because of the stress at home]. I went from academic probation to the president's list."
Cosper, who grew up in a Chattanooga housing project called McCallie Homes, is the youngest of five children and has two of her own. For most of 30 years, she moved in and out of relationships that hurt her, she said. She loved men who threw punches, men who screamed and told her what she could or couldn't do, whom she could or couldn't talk to.
"It first started when I was 19," she said. "As time goes on, you think you have the right person, but you got the wrong person. I went through a lot of changes."
Safety at last
When she got to the Partnership, she felt safe. She spent a month in the shelter in 2009 and then went into the New Visions Program, a permanent housing option for women who are chronically homeless, victims of domestic violence or disabled.
For three years, she said, the staff was there for her mentally, emotionally and physically. They talked to her when she was confused or lonely. They helped her stay focused on school until she finished her studies to be a certified billing and coding specialist and got an associate degree in medical office management.
In the end, she graduated with a 3.0 grade-point average.
"[Cosper] left an abusive relationship several years ago, which meant leaving her only source of income and support. ... Leaving behind a life with fear, unpredictability and anxiety has made a big difference," said Toni Morgan, a staff member at the Partnership. "[Cosper] has been empowered to gain control of her life and to seek independence."
After she graduated and the staff took pictures of her smiling in a cap and gown, she decided it was time to make a more drastic change. She couldn't find work in Chattanooga, and her older sister lived out of state.
So the Neediest Cases fund provided $175.20 to help her get a bus ticket out of the city.
Since then, she has landed on her feet, she said. It's been three months, and she is already working two jobs.
She has a full-time job as a staff member at a group home and works part time at Dollar Tree. Her children plan to go see her this Christmas, and in the next year she hopes to use the money she saves to get her own place.
"You don't know what it means to have this, have some peace and happiness," Cosper said. "They gave me my life back."