Jamaine Adkins is a licensed electrician who went through Chattanooga's International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' apprenticeship program and was enjoying a solid career with Lawson Electric. The 41-year-old understands what it takes to wire any building and also understands his own internal wiring.
In June of last year, Adkins rewired his career from electrician to what he terms "his ministry" when he joined the United Way of Greater Chattanooga as its liaison to labor unions to the six counties the agency serves. In electrical terms, Adkins' connection to his career is secure and grounded.
Still, it's hard to connect the dots between the focus required to work with electrical currents that can kill and the effervescent, smartly dressed Adkins, who laughed and hugged disabled veteran Bryant Ellis at Ellis' trailer in Hixson on Thursday.
"This is what I want to do," said Adkins, a graduate of Chattanooga Christian. "I just want to go about the work of helping people every day and loving people. I love speaking to groups about how they can help."
The Neediest Cases Fund is administered by the United Way, and it approves each one-time donation aimed at preventing a crisis. In virtually all cases, other social service agencies are presented with the need and then a request is made to the United Way. In the case of Ellis, there was no need for a third-party agency because the need was brought to Adkins' attention.
Ellis is a 56-year-old, 22-year veteran of the Army who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned from Afghanistan in 2009 and left the service. He had previously served two tours in Iraq. Ellis said in his last tour his team was forced to kill two teenagers approaching their vehicle wearing a suicide vest.
"I knew I had killed people before," said Ellis, "but this was different. I could never get it out of my mind."
After failing to keep a series of jobs, including being a baker and a grant writer, Ellis was literally on the streets in New York. Ellis' PTSD was diagnosed three years ago, and he received six months of treatment at the Bath VA Medical Center in southern New York state. Ellis' family has roots in Hamilton County, and he twice had lived for short periods in the trailer he occupies today. Two years ago, his brother picked Ellis up in New York and settled Ellis into the 1965 Commodore trailer that sits 50 yards from his house.
What electricity Ellis had came from a maze of extension cords running from his brother's property, and EPB said power had not been established at the address since 1988. The trailer had only some insulation, tin walls and didn't meet city code. Ellis, now stable with medication, began networking trying to find assistance to get his house wired and electricity established. The estimate to do the work was $8,000.
Enter Adkins, the United Way and the Neediest Cases Fund. Ellis and Adkins needed $1,500 for supplies. The money came from $750 in gift cards from Lowe's and Home Depot, with the remaining $719.56 from the Neediest Cases Fund. Supplies in hand, Adkins had a good idea where he could find the electrical expertise needed for the job.
"We had nine to 10 people most days coming after work to help," said Adkins, who stepped right in beside his colleagues from the IBEW. "We set the meter in August and worked five hours a day for 11 days to finish the job. And it was a job, I'm telling you, it was hard work. And it all met code and passed inspection."
The IBEW estimates that it put $7,000 in labor into the job, and Akins says, "It was worth every penny to help out Mr. Ellis."
Other local charities and churches stepped in and installed walls at the trailer once the electrical wiring was done, completing in October a process that began in the summer.
"I can't tell you how blessed a man I am," said Ellis, who won a battle with lymphoma in 2018 and walked around the trailer with a limp from a recent hip replacement. "Despite everything, I just want to be able to wake up each day with a purpose, even if that is only holding a door open for a lady on a certain day. As long as I am alive, I want to continue to learn."
Leslie Scearce, chief executive officer of the United Way, is aware of the work done by Adkins and the IBEW on behalf of Ellis, but she is concerned that the Neediest Cases Fund can get lost in the multitude of year-end giving opportunities at a time when the need for the one-time gifts is growing. In 2017, the United Way's 211 hotline fielded more than 40,000 calls from citizens looking for help.
"With the data we are collecting, you can see that the needs of families is moving beyond downtown and into the suburbs," Scearce said. "This Fund has such a great history. Traditionally, when people think of the Neediest Cases, they think of people in deep poverty, and that may be true. What the data shows, and everyone knows, is that the income gap is continuing to widen in our community.
"The United Way did a study called ALICE, which stands for asset limited income constrained employee. What its shows is that 60 percent of people can now be classified as the working poor. They struggle to make ends meet. One broken down car or one medical bill can unravel everything."
The Neediest Cases Fund was started by Adolph Ochs in 1912. Ochs bought a controlling interest in the Chattanooga Times in 1869 and then bought the New York Times in 1896. According to the New York Times, Ochs went for a walk on Christmas Day 1911 and "encountered a shabbily dressed man on the street. The man said he had just been given Christmas dinner at a YMCA but had nowhere to sleep.
The publisher looked him over, decided he looked respectable and gave him a few dollars and his card. "If you're looking for a job," he said, "come see me tomorrow." The encounter left the publisher thinking about charity. Helping a stranger had given Ochs a sense of satisfaction, and he wondered if one man's feeling might be the basis for a city's goodwill.
Ochs had a reporter work with the city's social services agencies and write 100 profiles on people struggling with poverty or a crisis. There was no direct appeal for money, only the hope that citizens would be moved to act as he was. Ochs' fund raised $3,630 in 1912 and $294 million through 2017. The funds are distributed through eight social services agencies and no administration costs are taken from the donations.
Ochs started the Neediest Cases Fund in Chattanooga in 1914. The local fund modeled the New York model. The fund was managed by what is today the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults for most of its existence and administered today by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga.
"It is an honor and privilege to be part of the Neediest Fund effort," Scearce said. "It's important to remember that the Neediest is point of triage for people. It is an entry way that can lead to a plan for other available services.
"I would simply say in the next three weeks that we are asking our community to do all it can to help the fund because our neighbors are counting on us. These funds will be used all of 2019. Not only are our needs greater than ever before, but what it really means when a family is turned on is that someone in the community is standing with them."
Contributions to the Neediest Cases Fund have dropped from $61.338 in 2013 to $39,124 in 2017.
Contributions to the Neediest Cases Fund will continue through December, and you can donate to the fund online, visit timesfreepress.com/neediestcases. In addition, you can see Fund cases from this year and 2017.
Conact Davis Lundy at firstname.lastname@example.org.