The number of donors and dollars going to local energy share programs has been decreasing, but need for the services has been increasing, according to representatives of the assistance initiatives.
Energy share programs allow residents to give money through utility bill payments to offset the cost for those struggling to keep the heat on as the weather gets colder.
In 2014, the Harrisonburg Electric Commission raised $10,213 from 507 donors, according to data from Brian O’Dell, the general manager.
By 2017, the number of donors had shrunk to 381, a decrease of nearly 25%, raising a total of $8,528.
Now, the commission matches all donations, which has increased the amount of dollars in the fund.
“We started matching back in the middle of 2018,” O’Dell said. “And prior to that, it has been on a slow and steady decline.”
From January to November this year, there have been 329 donors and $6,851 in donations, but with the HEC match, the total funding is $13,703.
The funds HEC raises are split evenly between two local groups, O’Dell said.
People Helping People is one of those groups.
The organization was founded in 1992 and helps residents in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.
Donations go to 982 households, totaling 2,318 people, helping many of them to afford things such as water and electric bills, medicine and heating oil, according to data from Leeanne Shepherd, the executive director of People Helping People.
Nearly half of the households assisted by People Helping People so far in 2019, 449, required assistance with electric bills after the utility has been shut off, she said.
“We can be the difference between somebody having heat or not,” Shepherd said. “And that’s a humongous responsibility because these people come to us in the worst days, months and weeks in their lives.”
More than 679 of the nearly 1,000 city and county households, or 69%, are located in Harrisonburg.
The group’s clients include “working families — people that are working and just not making ends meet,” Shepherd said. “We see a lot of people on Social Security benefits and they’ve worked their entire life.”
Many of the elderly city and county residents the group helps also have a low pension payment, forcing them to seek help from others, she said.
So far in 2019, People Helping People has raised $80,484.20.
Despite the recent drop in donors and dollars, Shepherd said the organization has seen lower donations over the nearly 30 years the group has been active.
In some past years, the group has only able to give needy clients $100 or $75 in assistance every six months, she said, but has since been able to maintain maximum payments of about $125 every six months.
Donations from congregations, which provide most of People Helping People’s funding, have been shrinking in recent years, according to Shepherd.
The Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative also donates $1,000 a year, according to People Helping People.
Southern States, a Harrisonburg fuel co-op, does not operate a formal energy share program, according to Irvin Armentrout, the general manager of Southern States.
“We do work with a number of government agencies and nonprofits that assist communities’ citizens’ needs,” he said.
Some residents bring in money to give to Southern States, which the co-op uses to help its own customers, Armentrout said.
Monique Finneran, Columbia Gas’s director of communications and community affairs, said the utility provider encourages customers to give to its energy share program if they can.
“We also encourage our customers to reach out to us if they are in need of help to pay with utility heating assistance, and we will always try to find a way to help,” she said.
Shepherd said spreading the word about the increasing need could help boost donations.
And the need for the services is also growing, despite the decrease in donations, she said.
“As a part of some of our marketing efforts that we’re doing at HEC, one of those pushes is going to be for the energy share program to raise awareness and encourage increase participation,” O’Dell said.
Groups such as People Helping People do not receive federal or state funds, but get “grassroots” support, Shepherd said.
“That’s a lot to be proud of,” she said.
“It shows our community is strong and is ready to help,” she said. “We can really show that by supporting those organizations.”
A representative of the Harrisonburg Salvation Army could not be reached for comment on Monday.