The unusual winter weather was reflected in the way that the heating season played out for the Windham County Heat Fund. This was the fund's eleventh year in operation and we tried to do things a little differently this year. That change, in combination with the weather, made for a fiscally unusual year.
Daryl Pillsbury and I started the fund with the idea that it would be a temporary stop-gap measure to help people suffering from high fuel prices. It turned out that we did not understand the scope of the problem and that is why we are still at it 11 years later.
We are living in difficult economic times and the gap between the have's and have not's continues to grow wider. This gap means that families with adults working two or three jobs each at or close to minimum wage struggle to pay rent, buy food and pay all of their bills each month. Buying fuel for heat only increases the stress in an already stressful life.
There are fuel assistance programs on the state and federal level but they often do not provide enough help for individuals or families to make it through the heating season. The Heat Fund tries to offer a band-aid to those who struggle at the beginning and at the end of the heating season and also to those who face unexpected life changes such as a cancer diagnosis or the loss of a job.
Daryl and I have tried to maintain a focus on emergency situations and that is why we tried to establish a new policy this year. We told people who automatically call us every year expecting help, that we want them to take a year off so we can help other people facing emergencies. It appeared to us that a few people were starting to become dependent on us and that is not our goal.
When people contact us more than once or try to rely on us for continuing support, we have to think that perhaps these people have bigger issues than paying for fuel; that their overall financial situation is not being managed well. We try to steer them to agencies that might look at the bigger picture and provide them with the kind of resources that they need to work their way out of dependency.
Enforcing that kind of policy this year meant that we cut a few regulars off of our recipient list. In addition, the low price of fuel and the relatively mild winter made for a season of lower fuel consumption for everyone.
We received fewer calls for help than we do in a normal winter. That made me feel that people do try hard to make do the best they can and to take advantage of a year in which the weather and the market worked in their favor. In other words, we came to the conclusion that people do not like asking for help and only do so if they really need it.
The Heat Fund raised $30,353.83 this year. There were 63 individual local donors and 12 corporate donors as well as grants from two foundations. Forty five people received fuel assistance. In a normal year that number is closer to 100. We paid $18,227.31 to local fuel dealers.
That means we have a sizeable surplus going into next year. We will try to use that wisely. If we have a "normal" winter next year that surplus will come in handy at the beginning of the heating season because other fuel assistance programs do not usually start until the end of November.
The Heat Fund is accountable to all of the people in Windham County and we thank you all for your continuing support. Our efforts are a reflection of the weather, the economy and market forces as well as being a reflection of the generosity of so many people with a social conscience.
Richard Davis is a registered nurse. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.