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.
For six months, Raymond Stancel called a broken-down Chevrolet Astro van his home.
Stancel, 66, grew up in Chattanooga, and moved back in March to live with his uncle. But soon after arriving, Stancel said, he was forced out of the home by his uncle's son, and moved into the van that sat on his uncle's property.
Inside the van was a mattress that Stancel said had been used by dogs, but at least it was near his uncle's house. That meant he had access -- limited though it was -- to the home's amenities, including the refrigerator and the bathroom. He had to ask permission from his family to use the bathroom, and he was lucky to get a shower a week.
"It was hard for me to live like that, but it was the only place I had," said Stancel, who has only a second-grade education and limited income.
Stancel's living conditions exacerbated some of his health problems. He developed a urinary tract infection while living in the van.
"If it hadn't been for Devin doing the things he's done, I would have thrown in the towel," he said.
Devin is Devin McGraw, a case manager with Partnership for Families, Children and Adults who works with Victims of Crime Act cases. The two men were put together after Stancel was referred to the Partnership by his insurance agent.
McGraw worked with Stancel when he was living in the van, helping him navigate the process to get the things he needed, including food and housing. But as Stancel's health started to decline, it became imperative to get him a place to live as quickly as possible.
Stancel needed to have a stent replaced in his urethra -- his second following the removal of part of his bladder, prostate and intestine.
"We were trying to beat the clock," McGraw said. "The doctor kept calling me, telling me he needed a place."
But as time passed, Stancel began to grow weary, telling McGraw he would forego the surgery because he wasn't sure he could find housing.
"You're running up against too many walls," he told McGraw on one of McGraw's last visits to the van. "I'm through."
McGraw turned to the Chattanooga Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund, using $175 to pay Stancel's security deposit and first month's rent on an apartment. A few weeks after he moved in, Stancel had his surgery.
"We talk a lot, and I can never say, 'I understand what you're going through,' because I can't," McGraw said. "When we first met, I said, 'I can't promise you anything, but I will do my best.'"
Even though his case is no longer under McGraw, Stancel said he still calls and talks to McGraw. For Christmas, he made crosses for McGraw and other members of the Partnership staff out of matchboxes and burnt matches.
"It wasn't really enough to show my appreciation, but it's what I could do," he said.
He gushes over the agency, calling McGraw his "buddy" and the female case managers he works with his "girlfriends."
"I'm just thankful I have friends enough through Partnership to help someone like me," he said. "I wouldn't have made it without them."
Contact staff writer Rachel Bunn at email@example.com or 423-757-6592.