The Windham County Heat Fund has completed its ninth year of funneling money from very generous Windham County residents to local people in need of an emergency Band-aid of fuel assistance. Daryl Pillsbury and I never envisioned the depth of need for help with winter fuel and, after nine years, we have learned a lot about the more vulnerable people who live among us.
The fund is an IRS 501(c )3 nonprofit and we operate with almost no overhead. This year our only expenses were the result of sloppy check book balancing and we had to pay $70 in overdraft penalties because of my ineptitude. Thankfully, Brattleboro Savings and Loan covered the checks and no one knew about our incompetence until now.
Donors, including 110 individuals, 15 businesses, grants and one public event raised $50,326 for the fund. That is the most ever raised. We helped about 100 families, paying for $47,318 in fuel. Some of those 100 families were helped twice because of unusual circumstances.
The fund requires applications that Daryl and I review and then we decide how to help people. If we have any questions about people we have the ability to talk to Southeast Vermont Community Action and find out if people have applied for fuel assistance elsewhere. We urge people to apply for other programs before we help them because most of the other sources of fuel assistance provide more help than the Heat Fund.
We all know that this was the never-ending winter from hell. It was cold and it was very cold for a very long time. Even those of us who can afford to heat our homes without great hardship were beginning to worry about how many more deliveries of oil or propane we were going to receive before we could turn off the thermostat.
The fund generally helps people before fuel assistance kicks in for families at the end of November. We did that this year, but we had to deal with an unusual number of people who got very meager amounts of federal and state fuel assistance who ran out of fuel in January or February.
They called us in a panic and had nowhere else to turn, so we modified our rules and helped a number of people for a second time, when we had available funds. We do not have waiting lists and we serve people on a first come first serve basis. We do not give applicants money. We pay their fuel bills directly to the supplier.
Sadly, this year we turned away more people than we ever have in the history of the program. Somehow, I look at this as not only a reflection of a harsh winter but also a sign of an economy still struggling to get back on its feet. Minimum wage jobs, no matter what the hourly rate, will never allow people to end the daily struggle to pay essential bills.
The stories we heard this year were heart-wrenching. In too many instances, we found out that a family was using the kitchen stove as a primary source of heat while they had gone for two months without hot water with an infant in the home.
Many people did not apply for government fuel assistance programs because they never thought their lives would take such a bad turn when a spouse lost a job or someone in the family was diagnosed with cancer. They turned to us, apologizing for asking for help, and we tried to reassure them that their friends and neighbors were happy to help them without obligation. That is a hard pill for some people to swallow.
We need to offer thanks to such a caring and generous community for opening their pocketbooks when they could have easily saved the money for themselves during this harsh winter. Thanks also go to the Thomas Thompson Trust, Entergy Vermont Yankee and the Willard trust for their continuing support and generosity. A special fund was set up so that Entergy employees could donate directly to the fund and we have received a steady stream of donations over the winter.
Gail Nunziata and Latchis Arts raised money for the fund during a movie presentation and all we had to do was to cash the check. Nunziata made an unsolicited offer that we could not refuse. Rick Fleming at Dead River Company has continued to be one of our major donors and his support is an inspiration to us as is the dedication of Gary Goodmote at Friends of the Sun.
A special thanks to all of the front-line people at local fuel dealers. Without your patience and understanding we would have a tough time navigating the waters. Local heating specialist Dave Hellus deserves praise for providing free services in extreme cases.
Thanks also to the solid support of Bob Fagelson over the years. This year Brattleboro Ford Subaru helped us quickly meet the Thompson Trust match, doubling their generous donation.
Support from the Brattleboro Sunrise Rotary, Clear Solutions, Chroma Technology, the Guilford Volunteer Fire Department and many of the local churches including All Souls, Guilford Community Church, Trinity Lutheran and St Michaels Episcopal Church, made this a year to remember as this community carved another notch in its generosity belt.
Richard Davis is a registered nurse and long-time health care advocate. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.