When Darlene Banks landed in Chattanooga she was running away from a husband who hit her, and she had no idea where she was going.
She left Texas earlier this year planning to head toward Florida, but plans changed. On the way, she thought about the time she took her children to the Tennessee Aquarium for New Year's. They had had fun, she remembered. So she pulled off the interstate.
"I was just trying to find a place where I could survive," Banks said.
With her two children, 15 and 19, she found an apartment on Craigslist, but left after several months of coping with rats and mold, she said. Her next move was to a homeless shelter, where she and her children stayed in a single room for 24 nights while she tried to find a new place for them to live.
Though she worked at Bi-Lo and received a small monthly disability check because she was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, she wasn't making enough to cover costs.
"There were nights I thought I was losing my mind," Banks said. "I couldn't sleep at night. I knew I couldn't lay down. I knew I wasn't going to get back up for my kids."
Then she was given $238 from the Neediest Cases Fund to help her with a down payment for utilities.
"If it hadn't been for Neediest Cases, I wouldn't have been able to make this transition," she said.
The father of Banks' children is in prison for abusing her and her children, she said. She was with him on and off for more than 20 years. They would break up in explosive fights, and then always find a way back to each other, she said. They once owned a restaurant together, but it closed.
He got caught in the abuse when her son, who has learning disabilities and ADHD, called police, she said. She packed her bags while he was in jail.
Treva Wright, who worked with Banks at the shelter run by the Partnership for Children, Families and Adults, said the woman has transformed over the past year.
Now that Banks has her feet on the ground, she is emotionally stable. She is studying at Chattanooga State Community College to be a medical assistant and just made it through finals. She is still in the house that the Neediest Cases fund helped her move into.
Neediest Cases Fund
"She was a fighter," said Wright. "She worked through everything she had to."
But there are still some things Banks must face. In January her daughter, Mieshia, is leaving for Army basic training. Mieshia didn't finish high school before the family left Texas, but the Partnership helped her get her GED.
And in a year, Banks' husband will get out of prison. When she talks about him, she still cries. He's been writing her letters and she said he sounds different, better. At least, that's what she hopes. When he gets out, he'll have to get counseling, she said, and that might mean he'll change, too.
Regardless, she said being displaced so suddenly has taught her how important it is to always have a plan B. No matter what happens next, she'll be ready.
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...