Energy assistance program keeps community warm
by Emily McLain
Jan 27, 2014 | 1036 views |  0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bill Kimber/The Daily Home
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Project H.E.L.P. is a Sylacauga Utilities Board program, administered by SAFE Family Services Center, that operates by strict guidelines to assist individuals or families who are struggling to pay their utility bill.
Bill Kimber/The Daily Home

Project H.E.L.P. is a Sylacauga Utilities Board program, administered by SAFE Family Services Center, that operates by strict guidelines to assist individuals or families who are struggling to pay their utility bill.
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SYLACAUGA – “Please check this box to donate $1.00/month to Project H.E.L.P.”

It’s a sentence you see every month on your bill from the Sylacauga Utilities Board, and those who choose to check ‘yes’ are helping keep the community warm, program organizers say.

Project H.E.L.P., or Home Energy Lifeline Program, is an energy assistance program that uses small donations to make a big difference for individuals and families struggling to pay their utility bill.

“In a perfect world, there would be nobody that would ever need that kind of assistance,” said SAFE Family Services director Margaret Morton. “But everybody has catastrophes, whether its losing their job unexpectedly, through no fault of their own, or a major illness, and that is who this program is for. It is not an entitlement program or a handout.”

Money for Project H.E.L.P is collected through utility bills and transferred directly to SAFE, which determines recipients through a strict eligibility process.

Utilities Board general manager Mike Richard said the board averages $475 a month in donations. The program purposefully keeps a low profile, as those who benefit from it are strictly confidential, Morton said, but she assures the community their donations are being used wisely and for a good purpose.

“On a regular basis, the money is distributed two ways here in our community,” she said. “One is through SAFE, based on actively being engaged with SAFE in moving forward and for emergency purposes to assist at no more than $100. We also divide the money and share with the Community Action Agency.”

A requirement of Project H.E.L.P, which is typically offered only one time per person or family, is to show progress toward removing the obstacle that prevents the person from being able to pay their bill, Morton said.

“The idea is to assist individuals in getting back on their feet, not in continuing to provide assistance,” she said. “We are creating an environment for self-sufficiency, but we understand people get into certain situations. With this program, we want them to come to SAFE and get involved with us relative to why they are in this position where they can’t make the payment. It’s really an individualized situation.”

Whether you need help finding a job, furthering your education or practicing financial management, progress toward improving your situation is mandatory to receive assistance with your utility bill.

A separate emergency relief program offers up to $250 assistance in a true emergency situation, Morton said.

“Those funds come from the Utilities Board and are intended for individuals who have a catastrophic illness or their job has been discontinued,” she said. “That’s when they come to us and demonstrate their illness or lay-off through proper documentation, and we have a process they can go through to receive help.”

Project H.E.L.P. was started about 15 years ago during tough economic times in Sylacauga, Morton said. In especially difficult years, the Utilities Board has even donated money from its funds to the program, Richard said, though it hasn’t done so recently.

Morton said the need for assistance is not as high as during the recession and “has been pretty stable for a while;” however, the need still exists, particularly with the recent freezing weather that may lead to higher-than-average utility bills.

“During the winter and summer is when this program is probably needed most,” said Utilities Board general manager Mike Richard. “We have recently sent out some fairly large bills because of the cold, and that’s usually gas related.”

Similar energy assistance programs are offered through Alabama Power and the Coosa Valley Electric Cooperative, but each has its own parameters, Morton said.

“Project H.E.L.P. is not just for anybody that walks in the door,” she said. “There are very specific guidelines under which that money is distributed. It is different from other programs like it and specific to the expectations of our community. Like I said, it is emergency assistance that comes with certain requirements and expectations. It is closely monitored and documented from top to bottom, and it is absolutely needed.”

For information on the program, contact SAFE at 256-245-4343.

Contact Emily McLain at eadams@dailyhome.com.