When Beverly Stewart read about a young man with such great determination that he lost more than 180 pounds and was superfocused on his education, she couldn't get it off her mind.
She cut out the newspaper article on 18-year-old James Miller and kept it on the front seat of her car, reading it over and over. She wondered what she could do to help.
Then Stewart, the library media specialist at East Lake Elementary, learned she had won $500 from her credit union. She decided to use the money for Miller's education at Chattanooga State Community College.
A few days before Christmas, Stewart met with Miller and his mother at the offices of the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults.
Stewart said she felt an immediate connection to him as they exchanged stories and aspirations. Stewart handed Miller a $500 check toward his college tuition and $200 more for clothes. She topped it off with $100 for him and his mother to buy Christmas dinner.
Although Stewart had never donated to the Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund, she said she's going to support it in the future.
"It fills a desperate need that's right here under our noses," she said. "A lot of times we are blind [to] those needs ... and the Neediest Cases makes them real because it brings out specific individuals.
"I love contributing to Haiti and places like that," she added, "but I think we can't ignore the suffering [that's] in our own community."
Because of generous donors, this year's giving to the Neediest Cases Fund rose to almost $150,000, a 250 percent increase from the nearly $43,000 raised a decade ago.
"In my history and the history that I'm aware of, this is the highest that has been raised," said Sandra Hollett, chief executive officer of the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, which handles the fund.
The campaign begins anew every Thanksgiving.
For two years, an anonymous donor has matched the money raised between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Last year it was $50,000; this year it was $75,000.
Not counting the secret donor, readers have increased their contributions to the fund each year since 2006 -- even through the worst economic decline since the Great Depression.
Last year, the Partnership gave $85,571 to help 600 people, compared to 306 in 2009, Hollett said.
The needs range from a bus card so someone can get to a doctor's appointment to helping pay power bills or helping a homeless person get into an apartment.
Although the agency has more money to help clients, the demand also has increased, Hollett said.
"From my perspective, people were more desperate and their situations were a lot more critical and serious, and we expect that to continue for this upcoming year," she added.
One donor who didn't want to be named said her family has contributed to the Neediest Cases Fund for more than 30 years.
"The highest level of giving is to give anonymously," the donor said. "Plus helping others help themselves, not just a handout but giving people the ability to help themselves."
She keeps a box at home and when her grandchildren visit, they use it to deposit donations, especially on the Sabbath.
Each year, the family drops off a paper bag at the front desk of the Times Free Press full of crumpled dollar bills and change, with the grandchildren's first names written on a note. The amounts have ranged from $40.74 to $77.28.
"It's a concept of giving back and helping, which is certainly what the Neediest Cases do," she said.
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