In the past week, Peninsula Light Company gave $6400 to 32 local families as part of Project Help, the annual member-funded program to assist low-income families in the area with winter energy costs. Since the program started in November, over 250 familes have already been helped.
PenLight’s offices are busy with twice-a-week appointments for families applying for aid, said member services manager Christy Iverson.
“Any week, there’s somebody in tears in our office meeting with us because they’ve never had to ask for assistance before,” Iverson said. “They’re just trying to go day by day.”
Project Help began over a decade ago, as an expansion of the assistance PenLight already provided through the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP), a federally-funded program filtered through state and county agencies.
“We’ve always known there’s a need [because of LIEAP],” said Jonathan White, PenLight’s director of marketing and member services. “But we thought there was also a great opportunity to engage with our members and help them assist as well.”
PenLight members contribute to Project Help in three different ways. Members can choose to make one-time contributions, to add a certain amount of money to their monthly energy bill or to participate in the “Project Help Round Up,” which rounds every monthly bill to the nearest dollar and sets aside the difference for the project’s fund. Rounding bills up adds an average of $6 to $7 to bills each year, White said.
All in all, PenLight receives about $25,000 annually in donations from members and from one-time contributions from outside organizations such as Key Peninsula Community Services, Gig Harbor Peninsula FISH Food Bank and local churches. PenLight matches each donation dollar for dollar.
“We really depend on these donations every year,” White said.
Families are usually referred to the program through social services or by calling PenLight to ask for a deferral of payment, Iverson said. Possible receipients then schedule an appointment at PenLight’s offices to see if they are eligible for assitance.
Project Help is available for families with an annual income lower than 150 percent of the poverty level as defined by the federal government, or $34,575 for a family of four. Families must also have received a late-payment notice and be at risk for service disconnection to be eligible.
LIEAP only helps families making less than 125 percent of the poverty threshold, which Iverson said is why Project Help was designed to cast a wider net. She said that Social Security payments often push receipients just over the 125 percent limit, but can still make paying energy bills difficult, especially in the winter.
“Sometimes the Social Security they receive might be just $30 or $40 more than what the level is. So we try to accommodate for that so we can include some of the seniors and disabled in our community,” Iverson said.
Eligible families receive a $200 credit to their PenLight account, to help cover to cost of heating bills throughout the winter. Project Help runs from November to April.
“It gives them a period of time to get some other assistance, or maybe just get them over the hump that they needed,” Iverson said.
Over the years, PenLight has seen a very positive response to the Project Help program from the community, including one-time donations of as much as $5,000. Some churches and social services that want to help with winter heating costs but don’t have the infrastructure to do so donate to PenLight to manage the funding instead.
In other cases, previous recipients have sent “pay-it-forward” donations to Project Help after becoming more financially stable.
“They’ve reimbursed whatever we sent them and then doubled it, to help other people,” Iverson said. “There are stories that just bring tears to your eyes.”