First, the pandemic struck, leading to health crises and job uncertainty for many in our area. Now, we’re seeing the effects of a challenging economy, with rising costs of goods and services.
It’s all taking a toll on utility customers. The number of requests that Metropolitan Utilities District and Omaha Public Power District are receiving for utility assistance is double from couple of years ago.
“Despite generous donations from the community to utility assistance programs, there has not been enough funding to keep up with requests for help,” said Britton Gabel, manager of Customer Advocacy Programs for OPPD.
In an effort to try to meet that need, the utilities took a bold step, raising the fundraising goal for their annual Heat the Streets Run & Walk for Warmth to $300,000 – triple last year’s goal. The event, which raises money for utility bill assistance programs, took place March 5. It began and ended in Omaha’s Aksarben Village.
This year’s donations are not fully tabulated, but organizers estimate the event raised over $151,000. While only half of the utilities’ lofty goal, it’s still higher than the $103,000 raised last year, when the event was held virtually because of the pandemic.
Sarah Lake, among this year’s 639 participants, was “thrilled” to return to an in-person 5k.
“The training is a great excuse to keep up the exercise routine in the winter,” she said. “And the great cause of supporting neighbors in need makes it all the more worthwhile.”
Funds raised are administered by Dollar Energy Fund, a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit that serves low-income utility customers. Funds are equally distributed between M.U.D.’s Home Fund and OPPD’s Energy Assistance Program.
Dollar Energy works with 26 local entities to provide financial assistance for utility bills to our neighbors in need. Help is available throughout the 13 counties the utilities serve.
Combined, OPPD and M.U.D. estimate they will be able to help nearly 440 households with utility bill assistance through the funds raised.
“This unique event is a terrific example of both inter-agency teamwork and community generosity,” said Salvation Army Major Greg Thompson, Western Division commander.
The Salvation Army and other partner organizations say the importance of energy assistance programs cannot be underestimated.
“Requests for help with utility payments represent 21% of the calls we receive into our 211 Helpline,” said Shawna Forsberg. Forsberg is president and CEO of United Way of the Midlands, one of the utilities’ partner agencies.
Craig Moody, an OPPD board member who co-chaired the event, said many of those seeking help have never been in this position before.
“We don’t want them to have to choose between keeping their utilities on and getting groceries or prescriptions,” he said.
Often, those seeking help just need a one-time boost, to help them get back on their feet, said Suzi Peklo. Peklo is the director of Family Strengthening for Catholic Charities.
“When customers call us, it opens a door of opportunity for us to help them in other areas of their lives,” Peklo said. Those other areas include job training, food pantries, home repair help, education and more.
“Everyone who supported the event can feel good knowing that 100% of their contribution will go to help our friends, family and neighbors,” said Megan Walter, Customer Experience manager at M.U.D. “We look forward to seeing everyone again next year.”
Both utilities urge those who are struggling with their bills to call customer service representatives and talk through their options. For OPPD, that number is 402-536-4131 in the Omaha area. Outside of the metro, customers may call toll-free at 877-536-4131. M.U.D. customers should call 402-554-6666.
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