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CoServ Charitable Foundation awards record $268k in grants for utility assistance

CoServ Charitable Foundation awards record $268k in grants for utility assistance

 

By NICHOLAS SAKELARIS | CoServ

The CoServ Charitable Foundation contributed $268,500 to six social service agencies to help CoServ Members and Customers pay their electric and gas bills this year.  

This is the most significant contribution CCF has ever made specifically for utility assistance, a reflection of the increased energy costs that CoServ had to pass on, particularly over the summer months.

One hundred percent of the funding came from CoServ Members and Customers who participate in Operation Roundup, where their bill is rounded up to the nearest dollar. It’s just pennies per month – an average of $6 per account per year – but it adds up to more than $1 million every year that goes right back into the communities we serve, including these utility assistance grants.

CoServ strives to keep energy prices as low as possible and maintained single-digit electricity prices every month from 2015 through 2021. That meant most CoServ Members didn’t have to pay as close attention to where they set their thermostats. But geopolitical issues, primarily the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sent natural gas prices soaring this year, which meant CoServ paid more for whole electricity. That cost had to be passed on to our Members.

The record-breaking summer heat combined with higher electric costs (Read more about how your bill is calculated here) resulted in high bills for all Texans, not just CoServ Members.

This heatwave, combined with higher costs for gasoline, groceries, rent, and other products, affected everyone’s budget, but for many, the increased costs were devastating.

Typically, people reach out to CoServ’s Customer Care Specialists who provide energy savings tips, show them how to use SmartHub to monitor electric usage and directed them to sign up for free home energy assessments. If they needed financial assistance, the Customer Care Specialists directed them to one of our social service agency partners who will pay all or part of their bill if they qualify.

All the agencies that received CCF grants saw an increase in first-time clients with higher bills and more demand for assistance.

“By simply rounding up their bills to the nearest dollar, our generous Members and Customers helped their neighbors through a challenging time this year,” said Jennifer Ebert, CoServ’s CCF and Outreach Coordinator. “The high bills were out of CoServ’s control, but through our critical partnership with these agencies, we were able to help keep the lights on for thousands of North Texans.”

Volunteers In Service To Others (VISTO)

Clients walk into these agencies full of fear and anxiety because they can’t pay their bill while also feeling embarrassment from needing assistance.

They walk out with the weight lifted off their shoulders.  

“When we hear their gratitude and see the expression on their faces, the sense of relief, that makes everything that we do so worth it,” said Bekki Jones, Executive Director of Volunteers In Service To Others (VISTO). “Once we agree to make that payment for them, we also offer to give them food, we send them away with about 2 weeks of food. That’s just another pressure that’s taken off of them. It’s heartwarming and makes it worth coming to work every day.”

VISTO not only pays the entirety of the bill but they pay it directly to CoServ or other utilities so it’s taken care of for the month.

“It goes a long way for us to be able to support individuals in our community so they can keep the air conditioner going in the heat of the summer and the same goes in the coming months in the cold with the heater,” Bekki said.

Texas Council of Governments

The funds from CCF help fill in the gaps to make sure no one falls through the cracks. 

The Texoma Council of Governments relies on federal funds for utility assistance but there are income limits and many people make too much money to qualify – sometimes missing the threshold by less than $100, said Judy Fullylove, Energy Services Director for Texoma Council of Governments.

“The money we got from CoServ allows us to help someone who is right there near the income limit,” Judy said. “Maybe they have high medical bills or something that prevents them from paying their bills in any particular month.”

Plus, clients have to go through an application process for federal funds, which can take time.

“It really is a help, and it also may help keep a household from getting shut off,” Judy said. “Everything about CoServ aligns with our mission and values here at TCOG. CoServ really likes helping their Members and they go above and beyond in that process. I can call Jennifer and if we’re working on an application for a client, we can work to keep them from being cut off.”

Christian Community Action

At Christian Community Action, clients used to bring in bills of about $250 but this summer, the average bill was over $400 and some were well over $1,000, said Daphne Houston, Director of Programs for CCA. CCA is also seeing more first-time clients than ever before who find themselves several months behind.

Some people are still catching the coronavirus, which puts them out of work for an extended period of time, oftentimes without any sick pay.

“It’s really hard for them and they’re embarrassed but they are always grateful that we’re able to assist them,” Daphne said. “We pay full balances. Our focus is, how do we get people out of this situation.”

All Community Outreach

All Community Outreach had clients from all income levels coming in with high bills.

They helped CoServ Members avoid disconnection by making the down payment so they could establish a payment arrangement. ACO provided more than $78,000 to 269 families for utility assistance from June through September. By comparison, ACO distributed about $34,000 to 75 families during the same period last year.

“The funds CoServ provided definitely made a difference,” said Janet Smith, Director of Income Support at All Community Outreach.   

Frisco Family Services

Frisco Family Services anticipates a 40 percent increase in demand for utility assistance for this current fiscal year, which started July 1. People usually come to Frisco Family Services for the first time desperately needing help with utility bills but they quickly learn the agency’s social workers have much more to offer.

That includes the Frisco Family Services Market, emergency financial assistance, adult life skills, a resale shop and case managers that offer referrals to other critical needs.

Inflation is hitting these social service agencies hard, too because it costs more to buy food and provide utility and rental assistance.  

“The support you all provide is critical to help us meet the demand. We have more people coming in. The pandemic really made things difficult. There are seniors on a fixed income so this hit them pretty hard,” said Nicole Bursey, Executive Director of Frisco Family Services. “We provide a sense of hope to people. Most people are very surprised at all of the services that we offer.”

Community Lifeline Center

At Community Lifeline Center in McKinney, 50 to 60 clients a week walk in needing help with rent and utilities.

“They’re seeing their own food costs going up and landlords are increasing rent drastically because costs are going up,” said Michael Schwerin, Executive Director of Community Lifeline. “Obviously, utility prices are going through the roof. They aren’t prepared for that kind of situation because a lot of people live paycheck to paycheck. Any kind of unexpected expense can be a crisis situation for them.”

Their primary goal is to prevent eviction and disconnection, which can snowball into bigger problems.

“With our strong partnership with CoServ, we’re able to actually contact CoServ and stop the utility disconnection,” Michael said.

To learn more about the CoServ Charitable Foundation please visit CoServ.com/CCF.

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