Heating requests on the rise; Keeping Auburn Warm struggles to meet needs.
AUBURN - One elderly widow was barely able to budget her regular weekly rent payments when a five-week month struck. She spent that final week eating only canned milk, using her food money for rent. When this cold, hard winter hit, she finally asked for help. She had no money left for heating fuel.
Patricia H. Bukoski, a member of Keeping Auburn Warm, said many local families and individuals, including many senior citizens, have asked for help for the first time this winter.
"We have received as many as eight requests in a single day. Our hearts go out to them. They are desperate. The head of household has lost a job or has an illness. Elders on fixed incomes cannot afford to pay to heat their homes. Funds are very tight this year, due to much greater need than normal."
Carl E. Westerman, president of Keeping Auburn Warm, said this is the most challenging year he has seen.
"The price of fuel has skyrocketed. The weather has made this year particularly difficult for a lot of people. We're here to help. That's why we started this."
The Feb. 5 Walk for Warmth at the Auburn Mall raised more than $1,000 for the charity, according to Christina Silpe, a member of the board of directors and executive director of elder affairs.
"We had hoped for more, but we know the bad weather hurt us. We don't want to turn anyone away," Ms. Silpe said.
The charity is planning fundraisers at Faith Baptist Church and North American Martyrs Church, and hosts a dunk tank at the town's annual Fourth of July celebration, but more is needed now.
Those requesting fuel assistance are often referred to the Worcester Community Action Council or Citizens Energy Fund, but for those who do not qualify or who have already used their allotment, Keeping Auburn Warm may be one of their last hopes.
Ms. Bukoski said the 3-year-old Keeping Auburn Warm organization works closely with the 31-year-old Auburn Community Assistance Fund, which relies on donations and an annual benefit golf tournament, its sole fundraiser.
Sally D. D'Arcangelo, co-administrator of the community fund, said, "That summer tournament is a long way off. We have a lot of demand now. We have already used a majority of our funds. We work very closely with Keeping Auburn Warm to make sure resources are available to all those in need and to make certain we don't duplicate services."
She said she is still receiving an average of "two or three requests for help a week, mostly for oil." The fund has also been used to fund propane, gas and electricity for families in need.
Last year, the fund helped 52 families. As of early February, 68 families had already received aid this year.
"It's been a difficult winter. There are so many people who need help for the first time. There are elderly individuals on fixed incomes and middle-class families with small children. Many fall through the cracks. They have lost their jobs, are on disability or are facing an illness, but don't qualify for federal assistance. What can they do? They need food and shelter and heat," Ms. D'Arcangelo said.
Ms. Bukoski said Keeping Auburn Warm gives those in need of food assistance food cards, donated by parishioners of the First Congregational Church and Democratic Town Committee, or a referral to Auburn Youth and Family Services' food pantry or to Kateri's Kitchen at North American Martyrs Church.
Ms. D'Arcangelo said one man came to the food pantry after suffering diabetic shock. He had no food to relieve his illness.
Ms. Bukoski said the Rev. Douglas A. Geeze, a board member of Keeping Auburn Warm and pastor of Faith Baptist Church, has organized an army of volunteers to help with other issues. With his help, Keeping Auburn Warm and its volunteers have funded furnace repairs, replaced broken windows and doors, repaired a roof, installed insulation and more.
"One elderly woman living alone lost her hot water tank. She was elated when we were able to help with half the cost of a new one," Ms. Bukoski said.
In another instance, a woman thought she needed a new water heater, but one of Rev. Geeze's volunteer contractors checked and found she only needed a new valve, saving her hundreds of dollars.
A young couple needed help making a small monthly oil payment, or they would have faced cancellation of their annual budget agreement, and might have had to try to pay an immediate, overwhelming oil bill.
Ms. Bukoski said, "There are people out there who just need $25 to get through one week until their next Social Security check arrives. Donations in any amount are so greatly appreciated. Even a small donation can make a huge difference in the life of a neighbor."
Donations to Keeping Auburn Warm can be sent to: P. O. Box 222, Auburn, MA 01501. For more information, call (508) 798-8765.
Donations to the Auburn Community Assistance Fund can be sent, in care of Auburn Youth and Family Services, to 21 Pheasant Court, Auburn, MA 01501. For more information, call Sheryl K. Spofford at (508) 832-5707, ext. 10.
PHOTOG: T&G Staff/TOM RETTIG
CUTLINE: Ryan Sullivan, 5, poses with members of the Star Wars 501st Legion fan group at the Auburn Mall during a fundraiser for Keeping Auburn Warm.