Four days before Christmas, Kali Lewis already knows she's getting what she most wants.
"My favorite part," the 7-year-old said, "is to be home."
Kali's looking forward to opening presents in the Dayton, Tennessee, home she shares with her sister, Kinslee, 4, and their father, Kris. Just a few months ago, though, it was far from certain whether the family would have a home at all — let alone at Christmas.
Kris Lewis, 36, said he used to work on a three-man outdoor painting crew but lost that job earlier this year when the work slowed to the point there simply wasn't enough.
Lewis said he was out of work for a couple of months. He got some help from the federal government, he said, but still fell behind on his rent.
"I've got two daughters, so I had to make sure they had a place to stay," he said. "I got a little depressed, but being a man of God, I prayed and tried to keep faith. I knew something would happen eventually."
It did in November, when Lewis landed a job at Dayton's La-Z-Boy furniture plant. He said that while the new job solved his long-term problem, the timing was such that he still needed help to get his back rent paid.
Asking for that help wasn't easy, he said.
"Being a man, if it had just been me, I probably wouldn't have done it," he said. "But I was desperate, so I gave it a try."
Lewis said he "felt I was being judged a little bit" by the first agency he called, but then took his landlord's suggestion to try United Way of Rhea County.
"I could tell by how they talked on the phone that they really wanted to help me, even though they didn't know me," he said.
About 10 days and a check from the Neediest Cases Fund later, Lewis got the help he needed.
"It got me over the hump, and then some," he said, adding that as long as he's working, bills and rent shouldn't be a problem.
And while this Christmas won't be the biggest ever, he said, Kali and Kinslee should be happy with what they find under their tree.
"And the main part," he said, "is that we'll be home."
Started in 1914 by former Chattanooga Times Publisher Adolph Ochs, the Neediest Cases Fund provides one-time assistance to people like Lewis, 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 help to become self-sufficient.
Last year, readers donated more than $80,000 to the fund, almost doubling the giving seen in a typical campaign year.
Donations to the Neediest Cases Fund campaign are accepted through the end of December.