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Good Neighbor Energy Fund sees spike in calls for help

With winter cold finally pounding on the door and the government fuel aid program short of funds, the Good Neighbor Energy Fund is receiving more calls for emergency aid than ever to help local families stay warm.

A joint effort of energy companies, the Salvation Army, and individual donors, the fund provides temporary assistance to families who fall through the cracks. In Plymouth, more than 50 families have turned to the local Salvation Army community center for help. In Brockton, phones are ringing off the hook.

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Last year the fund received and processed 499 applications from families and assisted 1,269 people from the start of the heating season on Nov. 1 through Jan. 31.

This year, with January not yet over, the fund has already processed more than 540 applications and helped at least 1,388 people.

Requests are coming hard and fast from people caught short when faced with high seasonal fuel bills, said Salvation Army Lieutenant Nicole Ross, who runs the corps’ Plymouth community center office with her husband, Tim.

“They just can’t get the mortgage or the rent paid and keep oil in their tanks,’’ Nicole Ross said recently. “That’s pretty much the story I get.’’

She said one applicant told her Christmas was really difficult this year, having to decide between providing for the family and putting oil in the tank. The cold leaves no choice now.

The increase in calls for emergency help comes against a backdrop of a steadily rising need for general fuel assistance since the start of the state’s economic downturn. According to the Department of Housing and Community Development, the state’s fuel assistance program has experienced a 44 percent increase in applications statewide, from 173,190 households five years ago to 249,078 last year, the most recent yearly total available.

The Good Neighbor fund depends largely on individual contributions, such as those made by customers of gas and electric companies through the green donation envelopes included in monthly bills this time of year, and through fund-raising drives.

Rockland Trust raised $12,000 for the fund with its mitten donation campaign this year, a sharp increase over last year, through small contributions to its 40 branches in communities south of Boston. Customers place donations in paper mittens placed on Christmas trees in the bank lobbies.

In earlier years, said Joan Reid, Rockland Trust’s public relations manager, the bank collected toys for Christmas.

“We decided there was a greater need out there,’’ Reid said. “We were impressed that the fund helped folks who may not qualify for federal aid. They help the people who slip through the cracks.’’

The donation envelopes customers receive from many of the 25 energy companies that support the fund provide emergency help for households facing the frightening choice of “heat or eat’’ when temperatures drop and bills rise, said Jeanne Cherry, an administrator for New England Gas Co. and the chairman of the fund’s energy company sponsor committee.

Other sponsor companies serving customers south of Boston include NStar, National Grid, Braintree Electric Light, Mansfield Municipal Electric, the Massachusetts Oilheat Council, and Middleborough Gas & Electric.

Despite tough economic conditions, customers’ donations have remained strong, filling her office with donation envelopes, Cherry said.

“It was humbling,’’ she said. “We have to have volunteer days to open them - we get so many of these green envelopes. Even as bad as the economy was, people gave everything they could. . . . You could see the shaky writing on some. People were trying to do what they can.’’

With heating oil priced well above $3 a gallon, a single delivery of 100 gallons can more than consume the full grant, Cherry acknowledged. “Trust me, I know,’’ she said. “You get whacked really good.’’

Last year more than 2,000 families received one-shot grants of $300. This year the goal is to raise $650,000 and help more than 2,250 families with $350 grants.

The fund is targeted toward families in temporary crisis who do not qualify for federal or state assistance for energy expenses. “The people who can’t get low-income assistance,’’ Cherry said. “People who want one-time help because they lost a job, got sick, face medical bills. It keeps them warm.’’

To qualify for the Good Neighbor fund, annual household income must fall within 60 to 80 percent of the state median. This year that means a household of two must have a gross yearly income between $40,824 and $54,432 to qualify. A household of four would need an income between $60,035 and $80,047.

An annual income of 60 percent or below the state median qualifies a household for government fuel assistance.

“We do not have a lot to work with,’’ said Salvation Army Major Robert Goding, who oversees the program from the organization’s district administrative office in Canton. “It can be one full payment for oil, or a partial.’’

Last year, individual contributions adding up to $400,000 amounted to half the total raised. The fund also received $200,000 from its 25 sponsoring energy companies and another $200,000 from the corporate community, said campaign publicist David Hughes, of Dodge Associates.

Over the past 26 years, Good Neighbor officials say, the fund has helped people including single parents, people who have lost their jobs, people who lost a job several years ago and are still unemployed, and elderly people.

The fund recently received a thank-you letter from a married mother of four who lost her job as a Head Start social worker.

“The fund . . . helps people who heat with pellet stoves or wood heat in addition to oil, gas, and electricity, Cherry said.

To apply for the Good Neighbor fund, visit the nearest Salvation Army center or call 800-334-3047. Qualifying families generally receive aid in a matter of days, Ross said.

To contribute, donors can use the envelope in their bills, donate with a credit card at www.magoodneighbor.org, or mail a check made out to the fund to The Salvation Army Divisional Headquarters, 25 Shawmut Road, Canton, MA 02021-1408.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

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