Area residents have already felt the icy breath of winter this month, but for many elderly and others with cash flow problems, the cold weather may only be an early reminder of the months to come. With oil at an average price of $3.72 a gallon, and with the average home using 822 gallons a year, budgeting for heat and hot water can strain any family's resources.
A group of public service veterans in Norton are now pooling their experience to assemble a coalition of residents and businesses who will help see the poorest of town residents through the winter with a donation of heating oil.
Community organizer and former selectman Butch Rich told selectmen on Thursday the Norton Energy Fund needs volunteers, both for donations of money, and for assistance in raising funds.
"We're asking for your endorsement to go out and solicit money and use it in the program," he said. "This will not cost the town anything."
The fund will be based on programs in two nearby towns, Norton public health nurse Donna Palmer told the board. The Attleboro Energy Fund and North Attleboro's Neighbors Helping Neighbors are each about five years old, and use donated funds from businesses and individuals to purchase oil and electricity for the neediest in their communities.
Irene Frechette, the present director of the Attleboro Council of Churches and the director of the diocesan council of St. Vincent de Paul, helps administer funding in Attleboro, and said she was happy to see the new coalition in Norton that calls together the veteran's affairs office and the public health office to assist in the identification of those in need of help through their outreach.
Frechette noted the Council of Churches already fields calls for help from residents of six communities. She told the board she will often talk to parents of young children or frail elderly residents who are just about to run out of oil, and said the situation can quickly become an emergency.
"In those cases we have to cut through the bureaucracy," she said, pointing out the lengthy application process that is usually required for assistance like self-help or LIHEAP (the low income energy assistance program.)
Funds for the federal LIHEAP program have been cut by half in Congress for the coming year, causing communities to increase outreach to businesses and individuals for financial help on the local level. Last year, LIHEAP assisted 429 Norton households.
Frechette said the application process for the locally funded emergency fuel assistance program in the Attleboros is relatively easy and quick.
"We ask simple questions," she said, trying to ascertain a certain number of particulars - how much oil is left, the number of people in the home and their ages, income level, and what kind of help, if any, they have already recieved.
The response for anyone found to be truly in need is an immediate delivery of 100 gallons of oil. The only catch is people are generally given only one delivery per family in a heating season.
"We take things on a case by case basis," said Frechette, noting exceptions to the rule happen.
Beth Rossi, the vice president of St. Vincent de Paul in Norton, said the organization helped 49 people last year with oil deliveries, and 76 in 2010/11. "The numbers are increasing," she said. "We are seeing different kinds of people. We are now seeing the working poor."
She added the numbers of residents asking for food help increased from 120 last year to 340 this year, another sign of increasing poverty.
St. Vincent's engaged two oil vendors and National Grid to help with energy needs.
Anyone wishing to donate money or to help with fundraising for the new Norton Energy Fund can call the town hall or send a check to the Norton Energy Fund, in care of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, at 1 Power Street, Norton MA, 02766.
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