Frigid weather early in the heating season, a mid-December ice storm and the poor economy have combined to cause many residents of Washington County to seek assistance in paying for their fuel this winter.
Susan Farley, a family assistance advocate at the Washington Hancock Community Agency (WHCA), reports, "The snow storms, ice storms and extreme cold weather since the beginning of December have taken a toll on resources that are available this winter. As many of you already know, the WHCA's THAW Fund ran out of money on January 8. It relies entirely on donations. From January 1 until January 8, WHCA spent $60,000 to help people needing emergency fuel or repairs to their heating systems -- and we weren't open for four of those days. It's a scary statistic."
"Most are on very fixed incomes, including some who are working," says Farley of those in need. "One family had parents working several jobs with two children, and they had nowhere else to turn. They came in just before we ran out of fuel money."
"There is still a lot of winter left to go," she points out. "The Knights of Columbus is holding its annual fundraiser on Friday, January 24, to help us put money back in the fund." The event, To Warm A Winter's Night III, will be held at The Grand in Ellsworth at 7 p.m. and will feature music and food. Tickets are $15.
In the past year, WHCA helped more than 640 families through The Heating and Warmth Fund (THAW) and has raised over $218,000 this winter for the program. THAW helps people with low incomes who are having difficulty paying home energy bills. Funds raised from the community assist people who might be just outside the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) eligibility requirements or who have exhausted all other options to heat their homes. People recently out of work because of plant closures and layoffs, who don't qualify for other home energy assistance program, may be eligible for THAW if funds are available at the time they apply.
The LIHEAP boost contained in the federal spending bill was passed by Congress on January 15. Although LIHEAP funds are administered by the Maine State Housing Authority, applications must be made through WHCA. "That's good news for us," says Farley. "Very encouraging, although we don't know exactly how much money we'll be getting, but we'll be able to do much more than we could after the stimulus funds dried up."
Lubec residents plunge for seniors
The recent "Freezin' for a Reason" Polar Bear Plunge in Lubec raised over $2,400 for the Lubec Senior Fuel Fund. This is the third year that participants ran into the icy water so they could help keep needy local senior citizens warm.
The Lubec Senior Fuel Fund is administered by the Lubec Town Office, and treasurer Randy Campbell says, as of January 17, the account contained $9,742. "All of the money is donated by people, including some from out of town," he points out. "The program runs from September 1 until May, and we've used it in 11 cases so far. They get 75 gallons of oil."
Created by former Town Administrator Maureen Glidden, the Lubec Senior Fuel Fund is for residents who are at least 60 years old and don't qualify for general assistance, says Campbell. "They've exhausted all assistance from other agencies and have less than a quarter tank of oil."
"People have been very thankful for the help," adds Campbell. "They say, if it wasn't for us they wouldn't have been able to heat their home."
For information about receiving assistance, contact Betty Case or Randy Campbell at the Lubec Town Office at 733-2342.
Machias church's funds drying up
The Machias Food Pantry at Centre Street Congregational Church has been giving financial assistance to households that desperately need help filling their oil tanks this winter. "We're just about out of money, although we still have donations trickling in," says food pantry Director Ken Varian. "We've spent about $5,000, and most of the recipients got 50 gallons worth of fuel."
He points out that many of the people who were hoping to get THAW fund money from WHCA discover, after waiting several weeks, "that they fall through the cracks and don't qualify. They come here as a last resort."
"When people plead for help with dispatchers at the oil companies, they'll tell them, 'Why don't you call the church?'"
Eastport area fuel fund scrapes bottom
The Community Fuel Assistance Fund in the Eastport area has spent almost every dollar that has come in this winter.
"We received $5,150 in December and gave out $5,039," reports Colin Windhorst, president of the Greater Eastport Ecumenical Churches Association (GEECA), which oversees the fund. "We give out $250 per household, and we assisted 20 of them in December. Half were in Eastport and the other half lived in the surrounding communities."
"And we've given out $2,500 in January, which is about half of what we need to go out, but it's helped 10 households," he adds. "We're operating on the margin."
"Normally, we raise about $5,000 in November, but for some reason, we received nothing this year," he points out. "I would guess because it was warm that month."
"We provide help to people who are balancing on the brink and where it is very much needed," stresses Windhorst. "There was a single father who was a clammer who had dug 40 pounds of clams, but by the time he got them to the dealer, the clams had frozen and the dealer refused to buy them. That's the kind of emergency we provide for. We arranged for someone to help him get enough fuel to get through the night, and then he could use his voucher to get oil the next day."
The fuel assistance fund is supplemented by the Salvation Army voucher system, and the field secretaries are Colin and Ron Windhorst in Dennysville; Tami Dinsmore at the Regional Medical Center at Lubec; and Ella Kowal at Eastport City Hall.
Tax-free donations may be sent to Community Fuel Assistance Fund, c/o Ann Pottle, c/o Bangor Savings Bank, P.O. Box 250, Eastport, ME 04631.