In today’s Seacoast Sunday:
Economy fueling aid requests
By Amy Kane
For 15 years, Lillian Burke has interviewed applicants for fuel assistance. This year she is busier than ever.
“More people are applying,” she said. “And more people are applying who never applied before.”
The staff at Rockingham Community Action, in the fuel assistance office in the basement of the Portsmouth municipal building on Junkins Avenue, has seen a jump in applications — 4,462 by mid-December compared to 4,422 for all of last year, into April.
“The economy is fueling it this year,” said Sharon Brody, director of fuel assistance at RCA. “Prices were so high initially, but now it’s jobs.”
On the Monday before Christmas, Burke, an administrative assistant, had 25 interviews scheduled. One couple sat across from her desk, leaning forward to answer questions. The woman wore a lightweight denim jacket. The man had a ball cap with the name of a lumberyard.
“We’ve never done this before,” said the woman.
“We’re not proud. We didn’t want to, but I was laid off,” said the man. “I have a lot of job applications in, but there isn’t anything.”
Burke listens, takes copies of the appropriate forms, and explains that, if approved, the couple will see a credit on their heating bill — a percentage off that will be good for one year. Then she wishes them a happy holiday.
When the couple departs, Burke explains: “Most people don’t want to be here. I try to put them at ease.”
Burke, 61, is professional yet compassionate. She has been on the other side of the desk too. She has been a single parent, struggling to raise two daughters. Fifteen years ago she was laid off from a bank job.
“I can relate,” she said.
In spring and summer, she spends time on budget counseling, income reallocation and preventive life-skills management for fuel assistance applicants.
She is pleased to be able to help, but frustrated at the number of people applying this winter — roughly double last year. This is the busiest time of year, with 900 applications a week and the work shared among a small staff.
It’s not a good feeling when Burke has to turn somebody down, but state and federal guidelines are strict.
This is where Gift of Warmth funds can help. Emergency situations pop up and the staff needs the flexibility to respond.
“Right now we’re using Gift of Warmth funds for some people whose furnaces are not working,” Brody said.
She noted that several area businesses, such as Appledore Marine Engineering, donated to Gift of Warmth, rather than throwing a holiday party this year. Timberland held a seasonal sale of its merchandise for employees, who made their checks out to “Gift of Warmth” instead of Timberland.
The generosity of local businesses and individuals is helping the hard-working staff at Rockingham Community Action help more people in tough economic times.
Burke keeps an even keel. She doesn’t get rattled, at least on the outside.
“At lunch I knit. I find a quiet room and have lunch and knit. It’s my own little world for an hour,” she said.
Your tax-deductible donation to the Gift of Warmth will benefit Seacoast residents who need help with heating costs this winter.
Please make checks in any amount payable to “Gift of Warmth” and send them to Seacoast Media Group, 111 New Hampshire Ave., Portsmouth, NH 03801.
Contact the Rockingham Community Action fuel assistance program at 1-800-639-3896.