BRATTLEBORO -- We have all been there. The lights flicker a few times, then black envelops the home. Candles are found to dispel the darkness, and everyone huddles together under the blankets for warmth as the temperature in the house plummets. Normal household activity comes to a halt and the head of household feels uncertain when the power and heat will be back on.

Now imagine instead that the furnace is still and cold because the money has run out and all resources for help have been exhausted; feelings of uncertainty follow as to where the next tank of oil will come from. That is what many families in Windham County experience every year, and that is when the Windham County Heat Fund is a lifesaver.

Run by Daryl Pillsbury and Richard Davis, the fund started out as a concerned conversation between the two friends in 2005 as fuel prices began skyrocketing, exacerbating an already tremendous need to help low-income residents keep their homes warm. It evolved from a fundraising effort collecting over $13,000 that first year to now, nine years later, collecting an average of $40,000 a year -- the highest amount in one year was $52,000 to benefit 130 families. Initially they planned on only doing it that one year, but the rewarding feeling that comes with helping was so great that they are still doing it. In the early years various fundraising events such as those with the endorsements of Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., helped with credibility, but now that the fund is well established Pillsbury has found that the time is better spent approaching businesses one-on-one and reaching out to the community via local media sources.

Today the Windham County Heat Fund is a full-fledged 501-3-C non-profit organization, allowing donors to use contributions as a tax deduction.

The Windham County Heat Fund helps families that can't get heating assistance through other avenues or through Southeastern Vermont Community Action for whatever reason. In fact, SEVCA often refers families the Heat Fund -- the application process is a lot simpler and the criteria is not as strict as SEVCAs, so acceptance is oftentimes a judgment call for Davis and Pillsbury. The only rule is that the Heat Fund adheres to is that it can only provide help to a family once a year. This year, so far, 84 families have been helped by the Heat Fund.

Pillsbury and Davis estimate that they spend over 400 hours each per year managing the fund. Pillsbury is busy either knocking on businesses' doors, or talking to the press to get the word out, or following up on a tip about a needy family or an elderly couple too proud to ask for help. Davis does the grant writing and manages the checkbook, and both review applications and coordinate fuel delivery -- for either wood or oil.

Neither Pillsbury nor Davis receives any money from the fund for their time, or spend any of the money for advertising. Every dollar contributed goes toward making someone warm, an average of $450 for a family. And while there are some very large contributions such as a yearly $5,000 from Entergy and every other year a matching grant from the Thomas Thompson Trust, the rest comes from the generosity of smaller businesses, church groups and grant money and individuals. It is never enough. Fuel costs continue to rise reducing the amount of fuel per dollar, and cuts to state aid have placed more people in need of help through no fault of their own. Each year Davis and Pillsbury's still have to turn families away when the funds run dry, particularly this year after such a long period of extremely cold weather. And this winter isn't anywhere near over.

Events like "Share the Love Twice," which was held earlier this winter by Brattleboro Ford Subaru, are helpful, and act as a great example of the generosity of the local community. The Heat Fund garnered $4,300 from that when new-car buyers checked off the Windham County Heat Fund as their charity of choice for a $100 donation.

When asked why they continue to run the program that eats up so much of their time, Pillsbury said it was personal. When he was out of work and received help from CABA years ago, he promised himself that if he was ever in a position to pay it forward and help those that needed a hand he would.

"It just makes me feel good," he said.

For Davis, it is his concern about families that have fallen victims to the economy. He appreciates that members of the community are very generous and make this happen every year.

Pillsbury and Davis are always on the hunt for more donations for the fund and say there is no better way to feel warm inside while keeping a family warm in their home.

To contribute to the fund or to request heating assistance, write Richard Davis at 679 Weatherhead Hollow Road, Guilford, VT 05301, or call Daryl Pillsbury at 802-254-4285.

Cicely M. Eastman is the special sections editor and feature writer at the Reformer. She may be reached at ceastman@reformer.com.