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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / From left, Savannah Blake, 21, Vandy Gibson, Ashlynn Hill, 13, and Alyssa Hill, 17, on Wednesday, November 24, 2021 in the parking lot of the We Care Thrift Store in Dayton, Tenn.

This past May was the best, and worst, of times for Vandy Gibson.

The 44-year-old mother of four had just moved her family into a four-bedroom apartment in Dayton, Tennessee. She said they'd left a three-bedroom apartment in Dunlap, Tennessee, where the landlord had offered to paint over the mold in the ceilings and walls.

"All the kids had their own rooms" in Dayton, she said. "I slept on the couch, in the living room."

But almost as soon as Gibson and her children moved into their new place, they were in danger of losing it. As was their place in Dunlap, the Dayton apartment is public housing, with rent based on household income.

"I've been diagnosed with degenerative disk disease and scoliosis, and I was just diagnosed with congestive heart failure," she said. "I'm trying to get disability, but I can't work. I can't make money to pay rent."

(READ MORE: Neediest Cases appeal raises nearly $80,000 for Chattanooga area residents in 2020)

Gibson said her daughters Savannah, 21, and Alyssa, 17, had been working in Dunlap. They had to quit those jobs when the family moved, but the timing of Savannah's last check was such that those earnings counted against the first month's rent in Dayton. In addition, the family went without income for a couple of weeks before the sisters landed new jobs.

"The rent was $375," Gibson said. "That doesn't sound like a lot, but we also had U-Haul rental, gas and the deposit on the apartment.

"I called a few places for help," she said, "and people told me, 'We can help you with 30 or 40 bucks' ... It was very stressful. I'd just gotten this place and I wondered, 'Am I fixing to lose it?'"

Gibson heard something different when she called the United Way of Rhea County, which tapped the Neediest Cases Fund for the money she and her family needed to get through that harrowing first month.

Since then, she said, things have gone more smoothly — the new apartment is all on one level, and Savannah and Alyssa are working at businesses right across the street.

"The rent's getting paid," said Gibson, whose younger children are Ashlynn, 13, and Landon, 6. "Every day's a struggle, but it all turns out in the end.

"Sometimes," she said, "there's a higher power at work."

Started in 1914 by Chattanooga Times Publisher Adolph Ochs, the Neediest Cases Fund provides one-time assistance to people like Gibson, 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 nearly $80,000 to the fund, almost doubling the giving seen in a typical campaign year.

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

Contact Bob Gary at news@timesfreepress.com.

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