Staying warm in the winter months is not easy for families who cannot afford central heat.
Many people across Northeast Tennessee are forced to find alternative ways to heat their homes becasue their bills are simply too high. This comes in the form of a sacrifice: turning off the heat to pay for other necessities.
Though there is no exact number reporting how many people are living without central heat across the region, local outreaches estimate that number to be in the thousands.
This harsh reality forces families to turn to other options to stay warm. Many will heat their homes with wood burning stoves, wood burning or electric heaters, and fireplaces.
This population of people is primarily made up of the elderly, an already vulnerable population. When heat insecirty is a reality, it can cause daily struggles for those just trying to stay warm.
News Channel 11 met three families living with no central heat in Greene County. All three of these families are able to stay warm in the winter thanks to monthly supplies of firewood, hand-delivered to their door by a local ministry.
HELPING HANDS: THE GREENE COUNTY FIREWOOD MINISTRY
The Greene County Firewood Ministry was born after a small group of men from Christ United Methodist Church in Greeneville, Tenn. decided they wanted to do something for their community back in 2008.
They saw a need firsthand in Greene County: the need for heat.
“It is a very big issue and most people do not realize how many people actually depend on firewood for heat because they can’t afford an alternate heat source,” says David Andrew, the current president of the ministry.
Every Saturday volunteers haul, cut and spilt firewood which they then deliver to more than 300 families in Greene County.
The ministry relies solely on donations, and for the past 11 years has seen an outpouring of support from the community.
With that outpouring of support has come an outporing of requests for assistance.
The first year the ministry was in operation, they delivered 75 loads of wood.
Last year they delivered more than 1,300 loads of wood. They estimate this year more than 1,700 loads will be delivered before spring arrives.
“We are on track for the biggest year that we’ve ever done. We are already already running about three weeks ahead on deliveries from where we were last year,” says Andrew.
For the ministry, they believe this is their calling: to help their neighbors in need.
“Whether we feel like we are serving God or serving our neighbors it’s the same thing,” says Andrew.
THE WILHOIT FAMILY
Carla and Chris Wilhoit live in a home in Greeneville with no power and no heat.
The couple says they have endured many cold winters.
“There was frost on the wall on the inside of the house, that’s how cold it got,” says Carla.
“I woke up one morning and the dog’s water next to the bed was frozen over,” says Chris.
Thanks to the wood ministry, they are able to heat their home with a wood burning stove.
Every two hours they go outside, grab more firwewood, and replenish the stove to keep the half of their home warm that the stove heats.
“I about cry sometimes, when we’re getting low on wood. It’s been a struggle… but the wood ministry has been there every time for me,” says Carla.
Carla and Chris say living this way is not easy, but it teaches them to be thankful for what they do have. They also have a huge appreciation for those who step in to help them, like the wood ministry.
“I wish they could see exactly what they mean to us. Without them we would freeze to death. We wouldn’t be able to cook, eat. Nothing,” says Carla.
THE AGNEW FAMILY
Barbara Agnew and her husband Curtis live in a home in Greene County, kept warm only by a wood burning heater.
Fueling the heater is something Barabara describes as a constant process, a struggle with her age and health conditions.
“It’s hard to do it but it is a blessing to have that wood,” says Barbara.
She chose to reach out to the wood ministry becasue her power bills were too high. Heating her home with the firewood drastically reduced the price of her power bill.
Barbara says without the Greene County Firewood Ministry, they could not afford the essentials.
“The cupboards would be bare except for what you can get at a mission or the food bank, because everything would go towards the electric heat,” says Barbara.
She is grateful to the wood ministry for helping keep her warm for years.
“You can thank God every day that there’s people like that out there. That are willing to help,” she says.
THE BUTLER FAMILY
Donna Butler has lived in Greeneville her whole life.
She takes care of her grandaughter and relies on disability checks to make ends meet.
She too, counts on the wood ministry to keep from freezing.
“You really don’t know what it’s like if you have never wondered if the heat’s going to last, if you’re going to get cold. If you have not lived through it you don’t know it,” says Donna.
When she sees the wood ministry pull into her driveway with a fresh supply of firewood every month, both she and her granddaughter are relieved.
“To see it on my granddaughter when they bring her wood, she knows that she’s going to be warm. To see it on her face means a lot,” says Donna.
Donna heats her home with a fireplace and one electirc heater. She said she can’t put into word how much the wood ministry helps her.
“Thank you. From the bottom of my heart and my granddaughter’s. They’re blessings,” she says.
WHO ELSE IS HELPING? WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?
The Greene County Firewood Ministry is the only local ministry that focuses solely on providing firewood to help families heat their homes.
They say the need is not just in Greene County, though. They have to turn down calls for help from families in every county in East Tennessee.
“As soon as we say we’re sorry, we can’t go outside of Greene County, then the next question is do you know anybody in our county who can help us,” says Andrew.
Though Andrew says we are in desperate need of more ministries like the Greene County Firewood Ministry, there are others who are helping.
“To stay warm is a necessity and something needs to be done here in this region, we can’t turn our back to it, we must respond,” says Aaron Murphy, CEO of Good Samaritan Ministries in Johnson City.
Both the Salvation Army and Good Sam provide heating assitance to people in Washington County and other Tennessee counties, but their ministries focus on many other aspects of outreach as well.
Because of this, it can be hard to keep up with the amount of need for heat assistance across the region.
“I’ve seen our community do great things, but the work is not finished becasue people are cold. People are in their homes, freezing to death, something needs to be done,” says Murphy.
Another group helping is the Upper East Tennessee Human Development Agenency.
They serve eight counties in Northeast Tennessee, with a focus on lifting people out of poverty. But their biggest outreach is the low income home energy assistance program, which is funded federally.
UETHDA gives low income families access to this funding which they can use to ease their energy and heat burdens. Whether that be through paying electric heat bills or purchasing firewood, it depends on the need of the family.
“These temperatures can be life threatening to those who can’t afford to properly heat their homes,” says Haley White, communications manager for UETHDA.
Last year alone they helped eight thousand heat insecure families.
“There is such a tremendous need for heating assistance in this area, we have a lot of people who live at or below the poverty line. Well below the poverty line,” says Amanda Miller, the community service director for UETHDA.
These organizations say our region could benefit from more hyper-localized outreaches like the Greene County Firewood Ministry to help stop this problem.
“Their ministry is so localized and there is such a great support from that community. They also have less people per area to take care of,” says White.
Another wood ministry working out of Kingsport is through the Higher Ground Baptist Church, who also supplies firewood to people in need.
The Greene County Firewood Ministry says people from other counties across the region should start stepping in when they see a need.
“The best thing that could happen would be for small groups to just begin helping their neighbors,” says David Andrew with the firewood ministry.
POWER BOARD RESPONSES
News Channel 11 reached out to our local power boards in the region for response to this story, below are answers in part from those who responded.
HOLSTON ELECTRIC COOPERATIVE
“Winter is especially difficult for those struggling economically due to circumstances beyond their control. Colder temperatures ramp up high heating bills, making financial woes even greater for elderly, disabled and other vulnerable members. No one ever really plans to be laid off from work or suffer a medical emergency, but these things happen. With so many already in need, cold weather and winter electric bills only make matters worse. Unfortunately, the monthly electric rates seen by Holston Electric Cooperative members remain highly dependent upon the Tennessee Valley Authority. While Holston Electric Cooperative operates on a tight margin with 80% of the revenue returned to TVA, the good news is our rates are still about average across the United States among electric cooperatives.”
“We do have an in‐house assistance program funded by Erwin Utilities’ employees and
customers who choose to have their monthly utility bill rounded up to the next whole dollar
or specify a dollar amount each month to assist those in need. Customers who are
experiencing extenuating circumstance and have a past due utility bill can apply for
assistance through this program. We work with local agencies such as Erwin’s Care and Share,
Neighborhood Service Center, Good Samaritan Ministries, Inc. and The Salvation Army to
administer financial assistance provided to customers in need. We have several customers
who receive funds through the Low‐Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which is
targeted specifically to heat‐insecure customers.”
“Our rates do not go up in winter. The usage goes up with electric heat—or inefficient heat systems. That means higher total bills. That is why we strongly recommend the Average Monthly Payment Plan (AMP) to balance out bill payments all year long… the Neighbor to Neighbor program which has shared funding from the company and customers (there is a bill check-off for customers to contribute). The Neighbor to Neighbor Program is a hardship Program administered by Dollar Energy Fund for AEP Appalachian Power and assists eligible utility customers with their electric bills. Customers may be eligible to receive a grant that’s applied directly to their utility bill. Our program is a fund of last resort because it goes above and beyond what is available through federal, state and other programs. Program guidelines and eligibility requirements are subject to change. Open from December 3, 2018, through March 29, 2019, for services that are off or in threat of termination. The maximum grant amount an applicant may receive is $300.”
“We do not provide any assistance through our LPC. We do advise customers of churches and local agencies that may provide assistance such as Neighborhood Service Center, Assistance Resource Ministries, Good Samaritan and Salvation Army. We also allow payment arrangements to be made if needed. Payment arrangements cannot extend past the next due date of the customer’s bill.”
“BrightRidge Budget Billing is designed to help customers offset winter bills by paying an
average monthly amount based on the previous 12 months usage. Budget Billing average
payments are often significantly lower than peak winter months. Budget Billing accounts are reconciled annually in warmer months when bills are typically lower, with the customer receiving a refundable credit or settlement balance due depending on the individual account.”
“The Heissee Johnson Hand Up Program has aided individuals in need of financial help with
their energy bills since 1989. Customer contributions have averaged over $65,000 annually
since 2009 with BrightRidge matching up to $70,000 annually. All funds go directly to the Heisse Johnson Hand Up Program and are administered and distributed by Good Samaritan’s Ministries and the Salvation Army. In 2018,1092 clients were assisted through $146,891 in Hand Up funding.”
DONATE TO GREENE COUNTY FIREWOOD MINISTRY
The firewood ministry relies on donations from the community to serve those in need. Monetary donations can be made online.
If you would like to volunteer your time contact 423-552-3501.
Donations can also be mailed to
Greene County Wood Ministry
C/O Amy Thomas
80 Splatter Creek Road
Limestone, TN 37681.
CONTACT THE UPPER EAST TENNESSEEE HUMAN DEVELOPMENT AGENCY
If you are in need of heat assistance the UETHDA can grant access to the low income home energy assistance program or connect you with an agency who can help you.
They can be reached by phone at (423) 246-6180 and on their website.