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Heating costs soar for Helping Hands clients

As days get shorter and the weather gets colder, utility bills get bigger. None of us look forward to that. Least of which is Helping Hand, the nonprofit organization that helps people in need cover basic necessities, such as heating, electricity and rent.

This year, Helping Hand has already granted a record number of grants to families, and the winter season, and with it the high-energy bills, has not even arrived yet. The No. 1 request for assistance has been help with Puget Sound Energy bills followed by rent or mortgage payment assistance, said Rosemary Martin, Helping Hand’s executive director.

“This year the need for help with PSE bills has been unrelenting,” Martin said. “Through the end of August we have paid PSE around $20,000 on behalf of our clients. Last year, for the whole year we paid them $22,000.”

She explained that the increase is due to the loss of alternative resources available to people in recent years.

“The Opportunity Council’s funding has been cut substantially so we are trying to help as many people as possible,” she said. “When someone comes in with a shutoff notice we pay the minimum amount to keep their power on and help them work with PSE on future payments. We expect the demand for assistance with power bills to increase as we move into the cooler months.”

Helping Hand provides immediate financial assistance to residents of South Whidbey when basic services of life and well-being are in danger of being discontinued and makes referrals for longer-term assistance.

Helping Hand serves the working poor, the unemployed and under-employed or homeless, single parents, seniors, the chronically ill, and others who find themselves facing sudden financial hardship resulting in an inability to pay for basic services.

More than 850 served

Usually the help provided is in the form of small grants paid directly to utility companies to keep heat and electricity from being turned off, or to landlords to prevent eviction, but there are many smaller needs which their volunteers respond to.

Martin said that so far Helping Hand has served more than 850 people this year — about one third of them were children. The number of people serviced is up about 25 percent from last year.

Martin explained that many of the clients are people who work hard to make ends meet and all it took was a sudden life change to knock them off and into a downward spiral of poverty.

“We have so many stories that I am not sure where to begin,” Martin said. “The 77-year-old grandmother supporting her grandchildren and needing heating assistance; the young homeless couple who needed formula for their baby; a disabled man whose service dog ran away when fireworks were going on and he needed money to get the dog back from WAIF; the family with both parents unemployed who needed help with paying rent; landscapers who couldn’t begin work because of the wet spring who needed help with rent, utilities and car insurance; the homeless man who showed up cold and wet at St. Hubert Catholic Church on Thanksgiving day and needed a place to stay.”

“The stories go on and on,” she added.

Martin also stressed that there are limits to the aid the organization can provide. Financial assistance is restricted to $400 per household per calendar year, except in rare situations.

The organization has been helping people on South Whidbey for 32 years — and hopes to be around for many more.

“Sometimes we can help them but sometimes we can’t because the people have reached their yearly limit with us or we simply don’t have the funds,” Martin said.

Helping Hands is also proud of the fact that nearly all of its funds are paid back out into the community. Only 12 percent of the money donated to the organization is used to pay overhead costs, which consists of rent, phone, office supplies, insurance and a small stipend for the executive director.

Helping Hands fundraising letter will be mailed out soon and Martin urges residents to help their neighbors through a small donation.

“The biggest need we have is money, donations of gift certificates for propane or oil, and volunteers,” Martin said.

 

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