2008-11-14 / Your City

United Way sets emergency fund, braces for winter crisis

'This is an attempt to mobilize our community before it gets out of hand'
BY CAROLINE KERAS CHAMPION CORRESPONDENT

As the thermostats are starting to go on across the region, many are still wondering how they are going to manage to both heat their homes and put food on the table.

The dire economic straits have prompted the United Way of North Central Massachusetts, along with 17 other United Way chapters across the commonwealth, to establish an emergency account, dubbed the "Community Support Fund."

"With the tough New England winter coming, this is the time," said Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong during a press conference to announce the plan.

This fund, which will locally be referred to as the Emergency Basic Needs Fund, is a supplemental fund raising effort to obtain money that would be immediately available for those who need the help. All of the contributions collected during this effort will go to support the 19 cities and town under the North Central Massachusetts United Way.

"This is going back to the basics in our own backyard," Wong said.

The establishment of the emergency fund is only the third time in the Untied Way's history that a supplemental fund of this magnitude has been needed; the previous two times were in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the devastation of the Gulf Coast caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. United Way officials say the new fund is an attempt to prevent a disaster before the coldest months of winter arrive.

"There are more people in need earlier," said United Way of North Central Massachusetts President Phil Grzewinski. "This is an attempt to mobilize our community before it gets out of hand."

Locally, many assistance groups are already feeling the crunch. Food pantries are reporting as much as a 60-percent increase in requests for assistance. Some have reported temporarily running out of food. According to the United Way, all of the state's 2,400 emergency shelter beds are currently occupied and local emergency shelters are at capacity.

"There has been a major increase in the number of applications for heating assistance," said Grzewinski.

In another attempt to lower the cost of living this winter, utility companies Unitil and National Grid unveiled a kit containing energy saving materials to be made available to hundreds of families in the area.

Two products highlighted during the press conference were energy saving compact fluorescent light bulbs and window film to seal cracks.

"The number one energy killer is infiltration," said George Gantz, Senior Vice- President of Unitil.

Volunteers are needed to help install the energy saving kits in home of people who are unable to install the kits themselves.

There are many other ways that community members can assist in this effort. Monetary donations can be sent to United Way of North Central Massachusetts, Attn: Community Support Fund, 285 John Fitch Hwy, Fitchburg, MA 01420.

Donations can also be made by logging onto www.supportunitedway. org/csf.

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