some text Customer Ben Cairns exits the Northside Neighborhood thrift store with his purchase of a bread maker Monday in North Chattanooga.

A week after Michelle and Mark Petersen welcomed their second child into the world, the world started to fall apart.

Mark Petersen lost the job he'd held for 13 years because of company cutbacks. They lost their three-bedroom house and moved from Florida to Michigan to take care of Michelle's mother, who was sick.

"We ended up being homeless for a while," Michelle Petersen said. "I mean, we literally lost everything. We lost it all."

When a friend offered the couple a chance to help start a business in Chattanooga, they had nothing left to lose. So they moved down and started over.

"Now we're rebuilding," Mark Petersen said. But when Christmas rolled around last year, the Petersens didn't have any extra money to buy toys for their now 19-month-old son and 7-year-old daughter.

That's when they found Northside Neighborhood House. After a few weeks, they ended up browsing through free gifts for the kids in a big room at a church.

"It meant more than words can describe," Michelle Peter-sen said. "We had no idea how we were going to pull Christmas off. And the fact we were able to get it done with their help was absolutely amazing. We wouldn't have been able to do it without them."

The Petersens are just two of 4,000 people who Northside Neighborhood House assisted last year. The community-oriented nonprofit has doubled the number of people it helps and more than tripled its operating budget since 2006, as executive director Rachel Gammon aims to carry out the vision that started on the North Shore 90 years ago -- on Feb. 14, 1924.

Northside Neighborhood House aims to give the North Chattanooga and northern Hamilton County community members a hand up, not a hand out, Gammon said. The organization's 31 employees offer help through three major avenues: direct assistance, such as help paying an electric bill; education, such as after-school programs; and the nonprofit's two thrift stores.

And while other nonprofits struggled to maintain funding during the recession, Northside Neighborhood House flourished, in large part because the thrift stores -- which provide about half the nonprofit's funding -- exploded with growth. Northside receives about 10 percent of its remaining funding from United Way, and the rest is generated through donations. Those also increased during the recession, Gammon said.

And that's a good thing, because demand for Northside's services spiked as the economy tanked, Gammon said.

"We saw a lot of families who were middle class who just lost their job and had a hard time finding replacement income," Gammon said. "It's a newly marginal population."

Every year between 2008 and 2012, somewhere between 35 and 45 percent of Northside's clients were first-time clients -- they'd never received help from Northside before.

"It was just the recession taking its toll on families," Gammon said. The percentage of first-time clients was closer to 15 or 20 percent in 2013, she added.

Gammon is Northside's fifth executive director in the organization's 90-year-history, and since she took over eight years ago, the nonprofit's operating budget grew from $340,000 to just over $1 million. Development director Brianne Carswell said Gammon's penny-pinching philosophy drove much of that growth.

"Rachel is a strategic thinker and planner and she makes sure she has the resources in place before starting anything," she said.

Gammon hopes to continue that growth by opening a new satellite office in the northern part of Hamilton County, in order to be closer to the areas where about half of the nonprofit's clients come from.

It's an extension that fits with the vision Northside founders Rose Longgley and Emily Page Schlessigner had in mind when they created the organization: when the women discovered that the families living in shacks on the riverside needed warm bedding, they opened the center to teach the families to knit.

Gammon thinks Longgley expected her organization to stand the test of time.

"She loved this community," Gammon said. "She felt a passion for impacting lives, and I think, because that's what her passion was, that yes, she thought we'd be around."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or