Is empathy making a comeback? In Brattleboro and the surrounding area, we have well-established evidence that it is. Since 2005, Daryl Pillsbury and Richard Davis have been running the Windham County Heat Fund, created to help families in financial crisis to heat their homes during the unforgiving, often brutal Vermont winters. Even after applying for fuel assistance from the State of Vermont, many families fall through the cracks, either over-qualifying for sufficient aid or receiving too little fuel to make it through the winter. Luckily, even in our era of government shutdown and drastic economic cuts to almost every social service, vulnerable populations in Windham County can still receive crucial assistance through the caring generosity of their neighbors.
In 1986, Pillsbury held an excellent job in construction. The economy was soaring and he felt secure, knowing that his next paycheck was always just around the corner. Then, while working a job at Vermont Yankee, he was badly injured, and could not work for several months. With children to support, and a bill for electric heat that amounted to more than monthly rent, he was at a total loss until CABA (now SEVCA) helped out with three months of heating assistance. It was a gesture Pillsbury says he will never forget. In the mid-2000s, when Daryl was still serving in the State legislature, Davis and Pillsbury joined forces while watching a Red Sox game. Their collaborative vision of helping those less fortunate turned into their first fundraiser, and the two have been serving the community every winter since. Windham County Heat Fund has been incredibly successful since its inception, raising $10,000 during its first year of operation and, more recently, between $40,000 and $50,000 each year. Because the two men are volunteers, every penny of the proceeds go straight to people in need.
The elderly are especially at risk; Pillsbury stresses that seniors often feel uncomfortable reaching out, and will sometimes avoid asking for help altogether. The Windham County Heat Fund receives two to three calls per year from neighbors on their behalf. Children are also increasingly vulnerable. In one instance, a mother with small children, no phone and no wood was referred through Youth Services. She received a visit from Pillsbury, who arrived to a freezing cold house; the family had been chopping up their kitchen table in a last-ditch effort to heat just a small portion of their home, and they were down to their very last piece. Pillsbury immediately called a wood supplier, and WCHF donated $400 to supply the family with two cords of firewood.
Everyone deserves a warm home during the winter. It's time to rise above neglect of those who cannot always afford the skyrocketing price of fuel in a floundering economy, to erase any residual shame about asking for assistance, and to reach out to one another. A job at McDonald's or Walmart is not going to fix this; low-paying jobs routinely fail to pay enough for both heat and food, and mistreatment of workers by large corporations has become legendary in the mainstream media. Let's release judgment, hesitation and blame in favor of the deeper human impulses of caring, neighborliness, ethics and compassion. A heating crisis can happen to anyone -- even the college-educated, those with an unshakeable work ethic, and super-responsible parents. The stress can be enormous, really taking a toll upon the well-being of anyone going through the crisis of no heat. In our times, we face unprecedented challenges, and it is essential that we band together and help one another. Richard and Daryl are accepting donations of any amount for the heating season already well upon us. Requests for heating assistance are equally welcomed. Please write to Richard Davis at 679 Weatherhead Hollow Road, Guilford, VT 05301, or call Daryl Pillsbury at 802-254-4285.
Cathryn Lykes holds a B.A. in French from Vassar College, and lives in Brattleboro, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.