by John Palen
With winter coming, a regional agency is ready to fire up its heat and utilities assistance for economically struggling residents in six counties.Mid Michigan Community Action helped more than 22,400 households with more than $11.5 million in services in 2009, with more than $1.1. million helping nearly 1,800 households with heat and utility assistance.
Outreach Services Assistant Director Debra Schafer said utility assistance ranges from helping with utility and heat bills to providing propane, wood pellets, even cherry pits. "Pits are a great fuel in cherry-rich Michigan," Schafer said. They burn hotter and longer than wood pellets, and the agency buys them by the ton for use in wood-burning stoves.
Mid Michigan Community Action operates in Midland, Bay, Clare, Gladwin, Mecosta and Osceola counties. Administrative headquarters are in Farwell. The Midland County outreach office is at 1521 Washington St., Midland, and the Bay County outreach office is at 111 Washington St., Bay City. In 2009, heat and utility assistance went to 214 households in Midland County, 214 in Bay, 326 in Clare, 212 in Gladwin, 470 in Mecosta, and 347 in Osceola.
This winter’s energy assistance is supported in part with $74,000 raised last February in the annual Walk for Warmth, an event held in each county. The agency is already seeking corporate sponsors for the next walk, scheduled Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011. The goal is $82,000. "People walk in the cold so other people can stay warm," Schafer said.
Also helping to keep heat in the house is a weatherization and energy efficiency program that aided 266 households last year. The program was high among President Barack Obama’s priorities and received additional funding this year, so Schafer expects a total closer to 500 in 2010.
In addition, a class she calls "Home Buyer 101" teaches people not only how to buy a house but how to stay in it in hard times. Some people don’t even have a home to heat, or are in danger of losing theirs. Last year the agency helped more than 1,000 families stay in their homes or find temporary shelter or a place to live. "That will probably double in 2010," Schafer said.
The agency helps economically struggling families in a variety of ways in addition to winter warmth. For example, it delivered boxes of commodity food to more than 2,700 elderly and 3,600 other households last year. "What amazes me is what comes in the boxes," Schafer said. "It’s staples, canned foods, canned meat, things you can make a meal of."
Another food program sponsors community gardens in all six counties. Volunteers, including master gardeners, raise and harvest fresh produce to give to lower income families. The agency also helps migrant farm workers in Bay County with food, gas and car repairs.
On the education front, the agency operates Head Start and preschool in three counties and Early Head Start in five. Early Head Start is a home visit program for young parents and their pre-school children, teaching skills that will help both when the school years arrive. “It’s awesome for new moms,” Schafer said. Last year 265 families in five counties participated.
Mid Michigan Community Action operates more than 20 programs with the overriding goal being to help develop self-sufficiency. Founded in 1966, the agency will be in its 45th year next year.
Schafer is a veteran of 16 years in human services, including Families First, Arnold Center, and Michigan Works. She joined Mid Michigan three and a half years ago as Regional Outreach Coordinator in Clare and Gladwin counties, and become Assistant Director of Outreach services last year. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Central Michigan University.
What’s the most important thing she wants economically troubled people to know about Mid Michigan Community Action? "They will find compassion here,” she said, “and, hopefully, help up and out of the trouble they’re in."
For a complete listing of offices and contact information, visit Mid Michigan Community Action.
© John Palen, 2010