It was called Project HELP.
In the decades since its inception, the program has warmed thousands of impoverished homes in the winter and cooled just as many in the summer — all thanks to the graciousness and humanitarian spirit of CU customers who believed in serving as their brother’s keeper.
As the months and years have passed, this ongoing community initiative that has helped so many is now in need of help itself.
Project HELP remains a viable operation offered through Cleveland Utilities and administered by Neighbors in Need, a division of The Caring Place. But today it falls short of helping the many who need help the most.
Ken Webb, CU senior vice president and chief financial officer, said it best when he told our newspaper, “Over the years, Project HELP has helped a lot of families in Cleveland and Bradley County. Unfortunately, more people are now in need than money is available.”
A few numbers tell the sad story.
Currently, only 504 of 32,500 Cleveland Utilities customers allow an automatic donation to Project HELP to be added to their monthly statements. Such contributions can range from $1 to $5 to $10 to $20 or above, or any amount in between that best suits the desire of the donor. CU suggests a $1 minimum.
Of those who contribute, the average monthly gift is $1.59. In July, Project HELP donations amounted to only $802.50. Obviously, this total will keep the power on for very few homes over a month’s time — especially in these unprecedented times of financial need.
At one time, more than 1,000 CU customers authorized automatic donations on their monthly statements. When the program was launched, it was administered by the old Council of United Services, a former division of United Way of Bradley County Inc. After the Council’s emergency services were distributed among existing social service agencies, Project HELP’s funds were coordinated through the Hiwassee Chapter of American Red Cross. Earlier this year, The Caring Place accepted the role.
Cleveland Utilities serves only as the vehicle for donations. Its billing statements, processed by office personnel, are the funneling agent for getting the funds to The Caring Place. The latter’s professional social workers coordinate all family screenings and application processing.
As today’s broken U.S. economy struggles through its sluggish mend, Cleveland Utilities customer service representatives continue to work cooperatively with area families struggling to make ends meet. Faced with the heartbreaking dilemma of paying for medicine, food or rent, these households are falling behind on their monthly utility payments.
By policy, CU is authorized to disconnect service on delinquent accounts 10 days beyond the overdue date of monthly statements. Yet, this rarely occurs because the utility’s collections office and customer service representatives are trained to work as closely as possible — within reason — with area families who are enduring hard times and bad luck.
This doesn’t mean service disconnections don’t happen. They do. And they happen a lot. But it occurs only after CU representatives believe they have exhausted all options with the customers.
This points to the importance of Project HELP.
Here’s an eye-opening perspective. If only half of CU’s customers would donate just $1 to Project HELP, it would bring in $15,000 per month to this humanitarian program ... as compared to $802.50.
Those who wish to sign up may mark your preference on the back of your next monthly statement. Those who wish to increase your gift may do the same. Donors who move to another home address are reminded your Project HELP donation will not be carried over automatically. You will need to reauthorize the contribution using the same method.
Each of the steps above can be done in person by visiting the CU front lobby.
Its name defines its purpose. Project HELP is all about serving as our brother’s keeper.
We urge CU customers to help this program that has helped so many.