Fuel assistance fund grows, a cent at a time

The Baltimore Sun

Frances Urban knows the value of a penny.

When she was growing up in Wakefield, Mass., one of the coins could buy her four caramels at the candy store.

Now she and other residents of Basilica Place, a senior residence run by Catholic Charities of Baltimore, are collecting cents to contribute to the Fuel Fund of Maryland. The nonprofit helps families pay their heating and home utility bills.

"Pennies make dollars," Urban, 73, said her mother always told her.

The demand for assistance has been very high given recent increases in the price of gas and electricity and the corresponding effect on the prices of other consumer goods.

So far the more than 200 residents of the building - some of whom have received Fuel Fund support themselves - have gathered more than 2,000 pennies, surpassing the halfway point of their goal. It might not seem like a lot, but they still want to contribute.

"It might be throwing rocks at tanks, but at least it's doing something," said Herbert Johnson, 73.

He and other residents have solicited their friends and relatives to donate. Elmer Rudis, 82, watches for the coins as he heads out early in the morning in his wheelchair. When he spots one along the curb, he grabs it for the collection.

Donnet Lawrence, resident service coordinator at Basilica Place, said she set up the fundraiser late last year as she searched for financial assistance for the residents.

She found information about a "Penny Round-Up" campaign on the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Web site that allows customers to round their bills up to the nearest dollar, with the proceeds going to the Fuel Fund. Lawrence adapted the program for the Basilica Place seniors and has been finding little containers of money on her desk ever since.

"These are folks who are living on limited means anyway. ... It's very humbling that folks are thinking of other people all the time," said Mary Ellen Vanni, the fund's executive director.

The Fuel Fund was founded nearly 30 years ago by Baltimore City Councilwoman Victorine Q. Adams during the energy crisis of the 1970s. It expanded three years later to become the Fuel Fund of Central Maryland, offering assistance to people in the five counties around Baltimore as well as the city. It is now known as the Fuel Fund of Maryland.

About 16,000 people give annually, but this year, some donors themselves have been pinched by rising costs and can't spare the contributions they usually would send, Vanni said. The Basilica Place fundraiser "is really symbolic of filling a gap," she said.

Demand for help has increased. In the fiscal year ending last June, the fund helped more than 7,700 families. After electricity prices spiked last summer, the fund assisted nearly 5,000 by December. So far, payments out have increased 45 percent compared with last year, Vanni said.

Ratepayers have to meet income guidelines - earning less than about $2,500 a month for a family of three. BGE matches 50 cents of every $1 the fund contributes, so donations go a long way, Vanni said.

But the nonprofit has already spent about 70 percent of its reserve fund this year, she said. The demand forced agencies that distribute the money to cap payments - in Carroll County, people received a maximum of $50 and referrals to other charities.

And although the weather is getting warmer, the need is still great, Vanni said. Utilities often cut off service in the spring if people have been struggling for months to pay their bills, she said.

"We really do need help to prevent turnoffs from happening," she said.

This year the Fuel Fund also began educating recipients about reducing energy costs through conservation - by taking shorter showers, wearing warm clothes to cut down on home heating costs and turning lights off.

The humble penny doesn't seem to get much respect these days in other circles. It costs more than $134 million to make $80 million in pennies because of the base cost of the metals that make up the modern coin, according to a recent 60 Minutes report.

For years, people have discussed eliminating the penny. Earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. said he thought the penny was less useful than any other currency, according to news reports - although it might not be politically feasible to eliminate it from circulation entirely.

But Rudis, Johnson and Urban all recall a time when the penny had a lot more buying power.

Rudis used to sell Ladies' Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post as an 8- or 9-year-old to earn pennies for spending money. He remembered gumball machines and weighing scales on every corner, all powered by pennies.

Johnson remembered children pitching pennies during recess and gathering glass bottles to exchange for the deposits and using the proceeds for candy such as long ropes of licorice and wax bottles.

He said the perception of value might have changed for many things - but not for acts of kindness.

"Even a small amount of doing good makes a difference," Johnson said.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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