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Bryant Ellis can wake up in the bedroom of his Hixson home, flip on the light switch and walk to the kitchen to make himself a pot of coffee. He can sit on the couch in his living room and watch television with his service dog, Whiskey, with insulated walls surrounding him and newly installed flooring beneath his feet.

Fifteen months ago, Ellis' home was barely livable. Many could argue it wasn't livable at all.

The disabled Army veteran who moved to Chattanooga from New York three years ago called the trailer that sits on property owned by his brother a "big, tin box." It only had running water in the bathroom and holes in the walls. It hadn't had an electrical account in 30 years, according to the power company.

But 13 volunteers spent three weeks rewiring and remodeling the space so Ellis could finally call it "home." It has given him a better quality of life, he said on a recent October afternoon while sitting on the couch he bought on sale for his new space.

"It really was a labor of love," he said. "It's a place that I'm comfortable and that I know this is my forever home."

It's a home that received some help from the Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund in 2018. One year later, the Times Free Press followed up with Ellis to see if the fund did what it was intended to do — give a one-time lift to a member of the community to help them get back on their feet.

 

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Neediest Cases veteran

The Neediest Cases Fund was started in 1914 by Adolph Ochs, founder of the New York Times and the Chattanooga Times. Ochs came across a homeless man on Christmas Day, who said he had had dinner at a YMCA but had nowhere to sleep. Ochs told the man to come see him the next day if he was looking for a job.

The encounter left the publisher thinking about charity. 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, so he started the Neediest Cases Fund in Chattanooga two years later.

The fund, managed by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, is meant to help local citizens with one-time donations to get them back on their feet, whether that be with utility or medical bills, rent, taxes, auto repairs or something else.

It's a fund that targets the growing ALICE population, an acronym that stands for "Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed." ALICE households earn above the federal poverty level but below the basic cost of living for the area. If an emergency happens, it could cause them to spiral out of control and be unable to get back out.

In 2017, ALICE and poverty-level households made up 39% of Hamilton County households.

A single person in Hamilton County would need to earn $10.08 an hour, or at least $20,160 per year, in order to live and work in the county today. That figure doesn't include savings for emergencies or future goals, according to a recent report.

"When you actually look at what does the Neediest Cases Fund mean I fell right into that parameter," Ellis said. "There are so many individuals and families in Chattanooga that could really benefit from a little boost to get through the [thing] they are getting through."

In 2017, the United Way's 211 hotline fielded more than 40,000 calls from citizens looking for help. Last year, that number grew to 43,000 calls.

The money for the job at Ellis' home came from $750 in gift cards from Lowe's and Home Depot and $719 from the Neediest Cases Fund. Volunteers from Chattanooga's International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers did the work for free, but the labor would have cost Ellis $7,000, they estimate.

Ellis didn't just receive monetary help through the fund, though. He met Jamaine Akins.

Akins, who went through IBEW's' apprenticeship program but then joined the United Way as its liaison to labor unions around two years ago, was the person who originally connected with Ellis and recruited IBEW to help with the job.

More than one year after the work was completed, Akins and Ellis still stay in touch. Sitting next to Ellis on the couch that afternoon, Akins said there are more people in the Chattanooga area facing the same circumstances as Ellis than some might think.

"There are so many people in this community that definitely need that helping hand, and once they receive that, they can continue to move forward in life," he said.

Ellis and Akins still speak regularly, and Ellis said he views his and Akins' relationship as a bridge that has been built. After receiving assistance through the fund that helped him get back on his feet, Ellis said he believes he should give back to the community that once helped him.

"I believe that oftentimes in life things happen for a reason, and oftentimes the things that do happen are what help build your character," Ellis said. "But this relationship that I formed and [that] has grown with [Akins] and the United Way family is one beyond compare."

Akins said he's just glad that he met Ellis.

"Every time I talk to him, he is always so thankful. I appreciate that," Akins said as he turned to look at Ellis. "Thank you for allowing us to be able to even serve you. We are so thankful that we could come and serve you."

Contact Allison Collins, digital and engagement editor, at acollins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

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