A customer-friendly Cleveland Utilities initiative that has helped to keep struggling families warm in winter and cool in summer for thirtysomething years is now finding itself deep in a struggle of its own for survival.
Called Project HELP, the program invites CU customers to make an automatic monthly donation that is added to each billing statement. A donor card includes suggestions of $1, $5, $10, $20 or other, but CU officials stress any amount can be accepted. A $1 minimum is requested.
Although collections are handled through CU, the program — and family screenings — are coordinated through “Neighbors in Need,” a division of The Caring Place. In its original years, Project HELP was administered by social workers within the old Council of United Services, a former member agency of United Way of Bradley County.
When the Council’s community roles were doled out to other social service agencies several years ago, the Hiwassee Chapter of the American Red Cross accepted the coordination duties for Project HELP. Earlier this year, the program’s reins were transitioned to The Caring Place and its “Neighbors in Need” division, according to Ken Webb, CU senior vice president and chief financial officer.
Project HELP donations are used to help to pay electric bills, and in some cases to aid in power service reconnections, for CU customers whose families are struggling to keep food on the table, buy medicine, pay rent and in this case to make their monthly utility payments.
Even before the meager resources of Project HELP are called upon, Cleveland Utilities customer service and collections office representatives work closely with area families who have fallen behind in their monthly bills. According to CU policy, customers’ utility services can be disconnected 10 days beyond a bill’s due date; however, this rarely occurs, Webb explained.
Disconnections for payment delinquency normally occur long after the 10-day period, he said.
“We work with customers very closely,” according to Jamie Creekmore, CU customer relations representative. “We find that communications is the key aspect in working together to keep the lights on.”
David Orr, CU customer relations supervisor who said Project HELP was in operation before he joined the utility company three decades ago, concurred with Creekmore’s assessment. He said Cleveland Utilities tries to remain as flexible as possible in helping customers with delinquent bills to keep their power service connected.
In spite of its best-of-intents, Project HELP’s contributor numbers are dwindling. Currently, 504 Cleveland Utilities customers — out of a total of 32,500 — donate to the program, Webb said. Contributions in July totaled $802.50. The average CU customer donation to Project HELP is $1.59 per month. Most participants contribute the $1 minimum although some give higher amounts.
“Over the years, Project HELP has helped a lot families in Cleveland and Bradley County,” Webb said. “Unfortunately, more people are now in need than money is available.”
Fingerpointing and fault aren’t at issue. Webb, Orr and Creekmore agreed area families face the same challenges as those in neighboring communities. Some have lost jobs. Others face catastrophic illness within their households whose need for medicine and medical payments are forcing unexpected money shortages. Still others are living off limited incomes whether they are elderly, disabled or handicapped.
A donation card available at Cleveland Utilities takes into account these scenarios.
Under a heading of “There is strength in numbers ...”, the donor solicitation card cites, “Be a member of a community-minded group of customers who care about the handicapped, the elderly and other less fortunate citizens who need help paying emergency utility bills.”
The card adds, “Just $1 a month goes a long way toward meeting the utility expenses of individuals with special problems.”
Webb stressed Project HELP donations are earmarked specifically for this initiative. They are not funneled into other funds, needs or causes.
Orr pointed out Project HELP, like other community causes, likely is being impacted by the 5-year-old recession and that local residents are making budget cutbacks where possible. Yet, he also alluded to the minimum donation.
“Very few people miss one dollar,” Orr said of the lowest contribution. “Basically, that’s less than the price of one Coke a month.”
Webb used another perspective.
“If even just half of our customers would give the $1 minimum, that would be $15,000 per month going to Project HELP and the families who face this kind of need,” he said.
Here’s still another perspective. Of the 504 CU customers who still contribute to Project HELP, that’s actually a 50 percent drop over the past few years. Webb said CU once had in excess of 1,000 donors.
One possible cause possibly lies within CU’s own guidelines, Webb explained. When a customer changes home addresses, the billing transfer does not automatically carry the Project HELP donation with it. Customers must reinstate their monthly contribution and the amount under their new address, and they probably don’t know it, Webb explained.
In order to beef up Project HELP’s numbers, Webb said CU will expand its public awareness campaign. Donor cards will be kept in the utility’s front lobby and when customers drop in to report changes of address they will be reminded of the initiative.
A variety of reasons for supporting Project HELP exist — such as aiding the elderly, handicapped and underprivileged — but Orr used a broader concept.
“It’s all about helping our neighbors,” Orr stressed. “That’s something that this community has always done well ... is to help our neighbors. We ask that people remember that these things can happen to anyone whether it’s the loss of a job, a serious illness or other unexpected expenses. Things can happen to any of us at any time ... you, me, a friend, a loved one, a neighbor.”
Creekmore described Project HELP as a “trusted source” of aid for those in need. CU collects the donations, but the family screening, background checks and verification are administered through Neighbors in Need.
Questions about Project HELP or those in need of its services may contact Neighbors in Need at The Caring Place at 472-0769.
“We just need to get the word about Project HELP back out there,” Webb said. “Many customers might not know about the program; others might have forgotten to renew our authorization to automatically add the donation to their billing statements.”
And for those who already donate to Project HELP, this also is the chance to consider increasing their amount of gift.