by Tammy Sakry
After four months of being unemployed, Ham Lake resident Mike Peterson was just starting to fall behind on his bills.
He had been able to rely on family and friends to help him pay his rent and other expenses, but when his January Connexus bill arrived the 50-year-old chef knew there was no money to pay it and his electric furnace would soon grow cold.
But a helpful suggestion by a North Anoka County Emergency Food Shelf worker led Peterson to the Salvation Army and its Heat Share program, which gave Peterson a $137 grant to pay his Connexus bill for two months.
“It was like getting a monkey off your back,” Peterson said.
Getting the grant helped him focus his concentration on other things, like getting a job, rather than dwelling on how to pay his bill, he said.
The Heat Share program recently received a boost of its own.
Connexus Energy gave the Salvation Army a $30,000 donation for the program last week and it will benefit Anoka County families.
“The donation is a way for us to give back to our cooperative members,” said Don Haller, Connexus Energy vice president of member services and community relations.
The money comes from yearly cash back funds unclaimed by former Connexus Energy cooperative members, he said.
If a cooperative member moves from the service area and does not supply a forwarding address, the unclaimed yearly cash back funds are put into an account for seven years and then donated for an energy related service to benefit the community in the eighth year, Haller said.
Since 2005, the need for energy assistance has gone up significantly and it is directly related to the economy, he said.
“About 8 to 10 percent of our (customer) base has used some form of energy assistance this year,” Haller said.
Giving to Heat Share is a way to give the funds back to the members, he said.
The Salvation Army helps about 80 to 100 families a month with the Heat Share program, said Sue Rosendahl, Coon Rapids Salvation Army social worker.
In some cases, the clients have been able to pay a portion of their heating bill, but not all of it, according Tabitha Denison, Coon Rapids Salvation Army case worker.
The program can help these families get caught up with their bill or help others pay for a month or two, she said.
Each case is handled differently, Denison said.
While the Salvation Army does not receive federal funds, the money does impact the demand on the Heat Share program.
Energy assistance programs in the state have seen a 40 percent reduction in federal funding, said Mike McGlone, Heat Share director for the Minnesota Salvation Army.
The need for assistance has not been reduced even though the funding has, he said.
“There are a lot of new people applying for the program because of the economy and the job market,” Rosendahl said.
Many of them have rented their homes for 15 to 20 years and are now needing help because of the economy, she said.
“We are trying to stretch the money and help as many people as possible,” Rosendahl said.
Receiving the two-month grant from Heat Share has helped Peterson beyond paying the Connexus bill.
A few months after losing his job as the Don Hanson VFW general manager last September, he did not want to do anything beyond looking for a job, said Peterson.
Despite putting in 42 job applications over two months, there was no job on the horizon for the divorced father of two teenagers.
It’s been a struggle, but getting the grant lifted his spirits and now he has two jobs as a chef at Ham Lake Lanes and Kelly’s Korner in Centerville as well as a side job cleaning for a general contractor friend, said Peterson, a former corporate chef.
Since the Salvation Army has helped him, only positive things have happened, he said.
It puts a smile on his face to be able to walk into a warm house and not fear the heat will be turned off or the disconnection notice, said Peterson, who was also dealing with a car with engine problems.
The grant has allowed him so sleep more at night, he said.
Tammy Sakry is at firstname.lastname@example.org