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Diane Jarvis works at her desk on Neediest Cases on Tuesday in Chattanooga.
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Back in October, Toni Cochran had no idea how she was going to pay her November rent.

She had recently left an abusive ex-husband, and she'd moved to Chattanooga with her two sons, 18 and 19, in hopes of escaping him.

"We had moved into a really, really bad house in a really bad area," she said. "We got out of there as fast as we could."

Cochran said her 18-year-old son pawned his computer to help move them into a nicer apartment, but come November, the former stay-at-home mom had only a couple hundred dollars to her name.

That's when Neediest Cases and Metropolitan Ministries stepped in. Together, they collected $475 to help Cochran's family pay their rent. But in order to keep helping families like Cochran's, the fund needs more donations every year.

The annual Neediest Cases fundraising campaign begins today. All donations are tax deductible.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press has helped run the campaign since 1914, when it started at the Chattanooga Times, said Alison Gerber, editor of the Times Free Press.

"It's helped thousands of people over the years," she said. "Often the people it helps are people who have exhausted other measures of help and have nowhere else to turn."

The newspaper partners with the United Way of Greater Chattanooga in the fund.

Diane Jarvis, Neediest Cases manager at the United Way, said the service helps fill gaps where other funding may not be available. She said that to get Neediest Cases assistance, clients must meet specific criteria. Mainly, that the money will help them become self-sufficient.

"We're looking toward stability and making sure people are stable," she said. "Keeping them in stable housing, keeping them in stable work. Anything we can do to help them reach that stability is basically what we're targeting."

Jarvis also said they're taking claims coming out of eight different area counties so far, and distributing funds to more than a dozen different agencies. Neediest Cases has helped about 270 families this year through Wednesday, officials said.

More than $61,000 was contributed to Neediest Cases in the 2013 campaign, a 7 percent increase in donations from 2012.

Rebecca Whelchel, executive director of Metropolitan Ministries, said this is the organization's first year participating in Neediest Cases, but that so far they've been able to use the money to help various clients, including Cochran.

"If we have a client whose need is greater than what our protocols can allow, then we'll run it by the folks at United Way to see if it's a good match with what their goals are," Whelchel said.

She also emphasized that the money is used for one-time clients, or clients who need assistance only for a limited amount of time.

"[Cochran is] an example of folks who more and more often we see who just need a helping hand for a specific period of time and then they're going to be OK," she said.

Cochran said she has nothing but gratitude for the people who helped her family when they needed it most. She now has a job, and her 18-year-old son has a job, as well.

"Everything we came through, now we're so thankful," she said.

Contact staff writer Hannah Smith at or at 423-757-6731.