Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund ‘changed life’ of Hixson's Bryant Ellis

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Bryant Ellis, who received help in 2019 from the Neediest Cases Fund, stands with his lawn care equipment on Monday. Ellis now runs Neighborhood Veteran Lawn Service and gives back to the community through acts such as an upcoming coat drive.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund has helped thousands of Chattanooga-area residents over the past 100-plus years, but it did a bit more for Bryant Ellis of Hixson.

"Neediest Cases changed my life," said Ellis, 61. "Literally."

In 2019, money from Neediest Cases and volunteer help from union electricians and affiliated contractors rebuilt and rewired the dilapidated mobile home in which Ellis had been living. Three years later, he owns and runs Neighborhood Veteran Lawn Services.

"Neediest Cases isn't crazy money, usually around $750 (per client), but it has a weight that lends a sense of hope," said Jessica Pilcher, director of community programs at the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, which administers Neediest Cases and similar funds.

"Mr. Ellis was able to turn that hope into action," Pilcher said. "That's something we're very proud of."

(READ MORE: 'Neediest Cases' drive has benefited the Chattanooga area's hardest hit for more than a century)

Ellis said he served 22 years in the U.S. Army, including two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He said that after he was discharged, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was chronically homeless for years.

He said he eventually settled in what remained of a 50-plus-year-old mobile home on property that had belonged to his grandfather. The electrical workings consisted of a "maze of extension cords," he said, and bathing meant going outside, filling a bowl with water, then coming back inside and microwaving the water.

Ellis said he told very few people about his situation, but one of those individuals reached out to Caleb Long of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers No. 175. Jamaine Akins of United Way said Long then got in touch with him, and big things started to happen.

"The beautiful thing was that it wasn't like a handout," said Akins, who manages the Chattanooga United Way's labor relations. "(Ellis) put up money as well.

"(The home) was a mess, nowhere near up to code. There were 13 volunteer electricians here at one point. We all thought it'd be a three-day job, but it turned into a couple of weeks," he said.

(READ MORE: Neediest Cases Fund donations approach $70,000 amid pandemic)

At the same time, Ellis said, he was being treated for cancer.

"Chemo(therapy) five straight days, 24/7, every three weeks," he said, adding that, even in the haze of chemo, he never lost sight of what he called his dream.

"It had always been my dream to have a lawn service," he said. "(Later), if I had even an ounce of energy, I'd get on a riding mower and practice on my neighbor's yard. I was too weak to stand, so I'd sit to weed-eat."

Ellis, who added that he had double-hip replacement in 2020, said he got his business license and started Neighborhood Veteran, which employs two to five people on each job.

"My business is built on honesty, reliability and accountability," he said. "I ask my guys after every job to step back, take a look and ask yourself if you'd pay for that work."

For about three years, Ellis said, Neighborhood Veteran has done contract work for OTC Properties. Ellis said OTC's Cleon Coleman has been nothing less than a mentor.

"Cleon started me with one house," he said. "Now we do lawn care on a lot of his properties. We also replace appliances and do pest control. Lawn season's been over for a couple of months, but I'm still working every day.

"Cleon really invested in me and my business," Ellis said. "The domino effect of everything -- Neediest Cases, Cleon, everything -- is the impact I'm able to make in the community."

(READ MORE: Opinion: When life throws curveballs, Neediest Cases is here to help)

Ellis said he seeks to make that difference by donating 10% to 20% of what he makes on each job. He said he's also conducting his annual collection of winter coats for the homeless.

"Every year," United Way's Akins said. "He won't sit still. He's a worker."

A worker, that is, who remembers where he's been.

"I've been homeless," Ellis said. "I've slept, showered and eaten at the (former) Community Kitchen, but people believed in me. People took a chance on me."

Ellis said his cancer was in remission at one time but has returned. He's on pill therapy, he said, because chemotherapy and radiation are off the table.

So what's he doing? Studying to get his contractor's license, he said.

"I've been given an expiration date, but I don't want to live by that," Ellis said. "I'm a firm believer. I have a world of faith in God.

"I told (doctors), 'You're not God. You don't have the final say,'" he said.

The Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund was started in 1914 by Adolph Ochs, then the publisher of the Chattanooga Times. The Fund receives donations from Times Free Press readers. Those monies are administered and distributed to individuals and families in need by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga and partner agencies.

Recipients must be working or on a fixed income and be able to demonstrate ongoing stability and self-sufficiency after receiving Neediest Cases funds. According to United Way figures, the Neediest Cases Fund took in $81,000 last year.

Contact Bob Gary at 423-757-6731 or bgary@timesfreepress.com.