With nature turning up the heat, it's becoming harder and more expensive to stay cool. Even local residents who don't usually need help paying their bills may find their resources stretched trying to keep up with utility costs.
Fortunately, there is a program designed to help with that sort of situation. Warm Neighbors Cool Friends has been around for 35 years, but many are unfamiliar with it.
First Energy Assistance Foundation Executive Director Susan Sams is trying to get the word out to let residents in Crawford and neighboring counties that assistance is available.
"Many people do not even realize that they are eligible for Warm Neighbors Cool Friends," Sams said.
Warm Neighbors Cool Friends is a matching program that provides qualified Ameren Illinois customers with financial assistance on their summer cooling and winter heating bills, Sams explained. It is designed for those who make too much to qualify for low-income assistance programs such as LIHEAP.
The program is not a low-income/charity program but instead focuses on low-to moderate-income customers who may be in the midst of a financial hardship or emergency and struggling to keep up with their bills. The recipients generally do not qualify for other forms of energy assistance.
Warm Neighbors Cool Friends is meant for those facing a temporary financial crisis, financial emergency or those living on a fixed income, Sams pointed out, all of which can create difficulty in keeping up with bills.
Eligible households can receive up to $700 a year to help pay for energy costs. They can receive $350 during the heating season and another $350 during the cooling season. The summer cooling assistance period runs through Sept. 30.
To receive assistance, qualifying customers must first make a payment on their utility account. Warm Neighbors Cool Friends will then make a matching payment.
Ameren Illinois gas and electric customers seeking assistance must apply through their local social service agency to determine eligibility. The agency in Crawford County is Embarras River Basin Agency. For more information, contact the Robinson ERBA office, 100 S. Washington, at 544-8780.
Sams recalled a retired teacher whose utilities increased $11 per month. Not much, but more than she could afford. The program was able to help her. In another case, a man found himself unable to keep up with utilities after his wife was hospitalized. He agreed to accept assistance from Warm Neighbors Cool Friends only after being told he could reimburse the program after getting back on his feet financially. In fact, after paying back the money, he continued to donate $5 per month to help others.
The program is funded by donations, contributions and grants from customers and employees across the Ameren Illinois service territory.
There are many different ways to donate and contributions are tax-deductible. "Every penny donated goes to help those in need," Sams said.
Founded in 1982, Warm Neighbors Cool Friends is a 501 (C)(3) nonprofit organization that provides year-round heating and cooling assistance to qualified Ameren Illinois customers.