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Walk for Warmth goes virtual, need greater than ever

February 22, 2021 | Jodi Baker |
COM_Walk 4 Warmth 2019_runners start

Editor’s note: The above photo was taken at the 2020 event, prior to COVID-19 health directives. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is impacting people across our communities both physically and financially.

Customers like Rhonda, a single mother to 7-year-old twins, who is also raising her 5-year-old grandson. She was working as a property manager. But when the property was purchased in January 2020, Rhonda was suddenly out of a job.

“Finding a job seemed impossible due to this virus,” Rhonda said. Companies weren’t hiring like they had been previously. “The weight of having unpaid bills is like an anchor. It is heavy and makes you feel stuck. Not only was I impacted, but my children were impacted, also.”

Need is great

Rhonda is not alone. Combined, Omaha Public Power District and Metropolitan Utilities District have seen a 38% increase in the number of customers requesting assistance with their bills.

The utilities are coming together to raise money for energy assistance programs at the 14th annual Heat the Streets Run & Walk for Warmth, taking place March 6. Participants can sign up online for a 5k run or 1-mile walk along local trails, in their neighborhoods, or wherever they choose. Runners can submit their times and prizes will be awarded to various age groups. People can also donate to the cause, without running or walking.

While utility assistance is a year-round need, this event is held in winter to bring attention to those who struggle to keep the lights on and heat their homes. Dollar Energy Fund will administer the money to utility assistance programs and community organizations in 13 counties including Burt, Cass, Colfax, Dodge, Douglas, Johnson, Nemaha, Otoe, Pawnee, Richardson, Sarpy, Saunders, and Washington.

“Through our partnership with M.U.D. and OPPD, we are able to help connect individuals, families, and senior citizens with resources and programs that allow them to maintain their utility services while lessening their overall financial burden,” said Chad Quinn, chief executive officer of Dollar Energy Fund.

“Donations in support of these programs have a significant impact in the community and further our ability to provide services to those who have nowhere else to turn,” he said.

Tanya Cook is co-chairing this year’s Heat the Streets event with Janece Mollhoff, director, OPPD Board of Directors, and her husband, Wayne Mollhoff.

“Keeping homes warm and safe has taken on an even higher priority within the last year,” said Tanya Cook, director, M.U.D. Board of Directors.

Janece Molhoff agreed, saying the utilities are seeing a record number of first-time applicants.

“We need to support our communities through the recovery.”

Increase in requests

The Salvation Army, one of 41 agencies that partners with utilities and Dollar Energy Fund, has been helping more people in the past year, as well.

“The pandemic has had a huge impact on demand for the services we provide,” said Maj. Greg Thompson, divisional commander of the Omaha-based Salvation Army Western Division. “We’ve seen that practically across the board.”

He said early on, demand spiked 144% at their largest metro-area pantry. During their summer backpack giveaway, one distribution site ran through nearly 1,000 backpacks in just three hours.

”Later, when we debuted an online sign-up system for our Christmas assistance programs, nearly 2,500 families registered within the first day-and-a-half of the system going live,” Thompson said.

Rhonda turned to another partner agency, Catholic Charities. They served more than double the number of people in 2020, compared to 2019, according to Suzi Peklo, the organization’s director of Family Strengthening.

“So many individuals and families have been financially impacted, whether it was because of illness, decrease in job hours, losing employment or having to leave a job to care for children during remote learning,” she said. “When there is financial burden, it affects the whole person. The whole family. The whole community.”

Finding help

In order for Rhonda to qualify for utility assistance, she had to have her home’s utilities transferred to her name, and the delinquent bill at the property transferred to her new account. This meant taking responsibility for nearly $4,000 in total debt between both M.U.D. and OPPD.

Nebraska’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, CARES Act funding, and utility assistance programs were enough to cover Rhonda’s OPPD bill and most of her M.U.D. bill. She was able to spread out the remainder over a 12-month period to make it manageable.

“We feel very fortunate to help so many because of our partnership with both utilities and Dollar Energy Fund,” Peklo said.

Last year, Heat the Streets raised $90,000 for energy assistance funds. This year, M.U.D. and OPPD hope to raise $100,000.

Rhonda is now back on her feet, working full-time, and providing for her family. “It seemed that things started moving forward for me and my family once that anchor was not holding me down.”

She said she’s grateful to Peklo and Catholic Charities, and all of the support she received along the way.

“Sometimes all it takes is that first step asking for help, and someone helping you.”

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About Jodi Baker

Jodi Baker writes stories and shoots videos for The Wire. Jodi was a television news reporter before she came to work for OPPD as a media specialist in 2013. Jodi earned her degree in broadcasting from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She's worked for news stations from her hometown of Omaha to sunny San Diego. She’s married with two bright and energetic children (a boy and a girl) and an allergy-ridden little Cairn Terrier. She and her husband enjoy catching up on some grown-up DVR time once the kiddos are asleep.

View all posts by Jodi Baker >

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