A chill in the air, more need for warmth

Windham County Heat Fund provides emergency fuel for dozens who can’t afford heat

BRATTLEBORO — As Daryl Pillsbury tells it, the idea for the Windham County Heat Fund came somewhat out of the blue in the fall of 2005.

“I went to Richard Davis's house to watch the Red Sox game,” said Pillsbury. “I remember he said, 'Man, it's awful cold - there's got to be lots of people out there who don't have heat.'”

So Pillsbury, then a state representative, and Davis, a registered nurse and executive director of Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health, decided to hold a fundraiser.

The idea was simple, he said. Programs for fuel assistance already provided a safety net for the poorest of the poor, but “we thought people who were falling through the cracks would need help, too,” Pillsbury said.

That first year, with the help of a jamboree at the local VFW, the Windham County Heat Fund earned about $10,000, Pillsbury said.

Since then, the fund, which has recently incorporated as a federally recognized tax-exempt nonprofit, has raised almost $150,000 with the help of 4,000 donors and several foundations.

“We give every dollar back,” Pillsbury said, noting that he and Davis spend about $400 a season out of their own pockets.

“We don't care,” he said. “This is a classic case of two people who just want to help out.”

Hard to ask

Approximately 350 families last year received help from the fund, Pillsbury said - people in need.

“The real tear jerkers are the calls that come in the middle of the night,” he said.

One elderly woman in Jacksonville was buying kerosene five gallons at a time and lugging it in a bucket back to her trailer.

The breadwinner of a family lost a job, and this “big family, full of kids” didn't want to ask for help. A neighbor alerted Pillsbury and Davis to their plight.

“It's hard for some folks to ask,” he said. “But it's not just going outside and it being a little bit chilly.”

In the bitter cold Windham County winter months, Pillsbury said, they have provided funds to young people with babies living with no heat.

And with many houses heating their hot water with fuel oil or kerosene, the need is not entirely seasonal.

After a summer of water heating, “some people are running out of fuel now, just as it's getting to be the cold time of year,” Pillsbury said.

Pillsbury said the fund will need extra support this season because the Thompson Trust, which had provided funding for several seasons, has declined to do so again this year.

The trust, a charitable foundation that distributes income from the fortune of 19th-century philanthropist and art dealer Thomas Thompson, has a policy of not funding charities continuously, “in order to permit other worthy organizations an opportunity to benefit from the limited resources at the Trust's disposal,” according to its website.

That means a setback of $4,000 to $8,000, Pillsbury said. Right now, the fund is low - to the extent where Pillsbury has made personal appeals to longtime donors to keep cash on hand.

But earlier this year, the fund raised $10,000 from The Marina's sixth annual Plunge for Charity.

“Deirdre Baker - what she did with that was amazing,” Pillsbury said of one of the organizers of the event sponsored by the restaurant, which is rebuilding from a fire that destroyed it only weeks after the fundraiser.

That money has gone to prepay for fuel at lower per-gallon costs, he said.

Pillsbury said the fund has established good relationships and trust with local fuel companies, including Barrows and Fisher, Merrill Gas, and Cota and Cota. But “far and away,” Fleming Oil has provided “very big donations” to the program, Pillsbury said.

“When we were starting with nothing but a passion to help people, Rick Fleming gave us a line of credit,” Pillsbury said. “He didn't have to do that.

'A godsend'

The people receiving help from the Windham County Heat Fund run the gamut from the working poor to those in unusual life circumstances. The one common factor? They have no fuel and no money to get a delivery.

“We provide emergency relief only,” Pillsbury said. “We provide 150 gallons of fuel, one time a year per family.”

Pillsbury said that when he and Davis take calls from people in need, they find some qualify for other fuel assistance programs. The heat fund works closely with Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA), a nonprofit resource for anti-poverty that helps people transcend their hardships and circumstances.

“It's been a godsend for us,” said Pat Burke, family services director for the agency, who supervises several state programs, which in turn receive federal funding.

The state's supplemental fuel program provides funding that SEVCA can disburse to eligible families to buy less than 125 gallons of fuel oil, and the state seasonal fuel program provides funds directly to fuel dealers on behalf of families who qualify for long-term aid.

These programs won't begin until November, and they're eligibility programs, Burke said. “We're going to screen people.”

For example, as criteria stand now, households of two people with monthly income of less than $2,430 “may be eligible for crisis fuel and seasonal fuel” through the two respective programs, she noted.

That will likely change, with a federal budget for the program still up in the air and with changing criteria for the program itself, said SEVCA Director of Planning and Development Lisa Clarke. One likely outcome: more people will likely become eligible for less money for the entire program.

Clarke urges people who think they might be in need to make an appointment with the family services department.

“Part of our job is service coordination,” she said. “We help people walk through a minefield of different funds. It's challenging, and not everyone is eligible for these particular programs.”

The difference with Windham County Heat Fund? “Me and Richard do this,” Pillsbury said. “We just need to know their stories.”

The formal application is simple, and the two founders have huge discretion to extend help to people who can adequately demonstrate that they simply can't afford to stay warm.

Though both men have their hands in politics - Pillsbury now serves on the Brattleboro Selectboard and Davis has thrown his hat in the ring in the race for state representative for Guilford and Vernon - Pillsbury said the fund has always transcended any partisanship or ideals.

“For me, it's all about helping people,” he said. “This is the best thing I do in my life.”

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