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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Jasmine Fuller at her rental home on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020.

The last conversation Jasmine Fuller had with her fiance was about her fear of thunder as she lay in bed next to him, trying to sleep.

It was Easter Sunday, and she had cooked a big meal — ham, macaroni and cheese, collard greens — and Raffael Jenkins said he was so full it made him tired. He had to be up for work at 5 a.m. the next day, so had gone to sleep early that night.

"Everything was normal," Fuller said. "I didn't know that there was a tornado coming or anything. Nothing came up on my phone. I just thought it was a storm."

Jenkins was still fast asleep when heavy winds caused a tree to fall on the home they rented on Wilcox Boulevard, which they shared with their 4-year-old daughter, Ja'zelle, and Fuller's son Jamauri, 11, and daughter Sumaiyah, 7.

Barely missing the room where her daughters were sleeping, the tree fell into Fuller's bedroom, killing Jenkins instantly as she lay beside him.

She screamed as she struggled to free herself from under the tree limbs, and rushed to get her children out of the house. She couldn't find her glasses and was unable to see as they escaped into the raging storm, somehow avoiding downed power lines in the dark neighborhood.

A neighbor brought her a pair of pants, as Fuller did not have time to dress before getting out of the house. Jenkins' uncle and cousins were able to pull him out from under the tree, but it was too late to save him.

Due to the pandemic, they held only a small funeral with just family. Fuller and her children stayed in a hotel room for a week, but the reality of having to go on with her everyday life without Jenkins set in quickly.

In an instant she had lost her home, her fiance and her source of income. Fuller had lost her receptionist job near the start of the pandemic, so Jenkins' job as a driver and loader for J.B. Hunt Transport Services had been paying their bills.

Her daughter went to preschool at Signal Centers, where she began working as a receptionist and received assistance from a caseworker in applying for help from the Neediest Cases fund.

Started in 1913 by Chattanooga Times founder Adolph Ochs, the Neediest Cases Fund provides one-time assistance to people like Fuller who are faced with unforeseen circumstances that leave them unable to pay their bills.

Funded by donations from Times Free Press readers, the Neediest Cases Fund is managed by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga and distributed to people in need who are referred by partner agencies.

Recipients are required to be employed to receive assistance from the fund, which fulfills basic needs such as housing, utilities and food to those who need one-time help to become self-sufficient.

Last year, readers donated a total of $46,569.86 to the fund, a significant increase over the 2018 total of $41,827.70.

(Donate to the Neediest Cases Fund here) 

Requests for assistance from Neediest Cases have been down in 2020, likely because people instead are requesting help from pandemic-related funds such as the United Way's Restore Hope Fund, said Carmen Hutson, director of stability and community programming for United Way of Greater Chattanooga and manager of the Neediest Cases and Restore Hope funds.

While Neediest Cases is focused on helping people in crisis who are employed, Restore Hope concentrates on providing assistance for people who have lost their jobs or income due to the pandemic, Hutson said.

But the Restore Hope funds are dwindling, and Hutson anticipates the Neediest Cases Fund will be needed more than ever in 2021.

"If we don't have enough funding, then people are going to be in dire straits," Hutson said. "To me, Neediest Cases is one of those long-term solutions to a major problem, and people are going to be struggling for a while to get over the effects of COVID. Even when they get jobs, it's going to take a while to catch up."

With assistance from the Neediest Cases Fund, Fuller was able to make a downpayment and pay her first month's rent on a new rental home.

She said her favorite aspect of her new home is there are no trees close by, though she still sleeps in her daughters' room to keep them safe.

Her youngest daughter, who was very close with her father, used to tell people he was stuck under a tree. Now she understands that he's in heaven, Fuller said, and the girl talks to him while she strokes the top of the urn holding his ashes.

Her fourth birthday was in September, and she's still opening presents that are stacked under a table in the living room. She likes to savor them, Fuller said, and she's excited for Christmas.

Fuller doesn't have family in Chattanooga, but for Thanksgiving she's planning a meal similar to what she made for Easter.

She stays in Chattanooga because she has a strong support system in her fellow Chattanooga Ravens cheerleaders, of which she is the head. She's thankful for their help, and for the assistance she's received from Signal Centers and Neediest Cases.

This year's Neediest Cases Fund campaign kicks off on Thanksgiving day, and donations are accepted through the end of December.

United Way is using the global Giving Tuesday movement, in which people are encouraged to give to charitable causes on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, to help the Neediest Cases Fund gain momentum.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com.

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