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Churches, Community Action join to help those in need pay utilities

| Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

About three years ago, Level Green Presbyterian Church in Trafford received $10,000 from an anonymous donor.

“When we get those gifts, we try to think of a bunch of little things we can do with it,” said church member Brian Bennett of Penn Township. “I thought, why not try to get something started with it — use it as seed money to make something substantial?”

Bennett, fellow church members and Pastor Dennis Macaleer decided to form the Westmoreland Churches Committee for Emergency Aid, which collaborates with Westmoreland Community Action to help people who can't pay utility bills and have depleted other resources, such as the state's Dollar Energy Fund and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

“Mainly, we're focused on people who need help with utilities, whether it be electric, gas or heating oil,” said Bennett, group president. “We try to fill in the gaps where people fall through the cracks of federal programs or other programs. ... We want to let them know the Lord is at work in the community.”

Bennett modeled the program after a similar one in Indiana County that his mother was involved with for 20 years. Macaleer sent letters to about 80 churches to invite them to participate, while Bennett contacted Community Action to see what kind of program they could create together. Bennett wanted to include the county agency to address two concerns that arise when a person approaches a church for help: if the need is legitimate and how the church can help.

“(Community Action) is a good place to send people because they get more comprehensive help through money that is available through various programs,” he said. “... (The agency is) in a position to evaluate the person's situation, which would be awkward for a church to try to do.”

The agency agreed to collaborate on an application process, and the group got several churches on board.

A person must first apply to Community Action for assistance. If they do not qualify for any state programs, Lois Wise of Greensburg, administrative assistant for the Next Steps Supportive Housing Program, reviews the application to ensure the need is legitimate. Wise passes along those cases to Mary Jean Kowalski of Trafford, who confirms the person lives in a qualifying ZIP code and fits other criteria.

The church group provides up to $500, which is paid directly to the utility company.

According to Wise, applicants range from senior citizens and disabled citizens to single parents. One applicant lost his business and fell behind on his bills. Several others ran out of heating oil just before the last winter cold snap and could not afford to purchase more.

“Fortunately, WCCEA is available to help them out,” said Wise of Greensburg. “It is a great thing that they're doing.”

According to treasurer Linda Yocum, the committee assisted 17 families in 2011 and 39 families in 2012. As of May 31, the committee assisted 19 families this year.

Kowalski said the severe winter exhausted much of its funds, though at least nine churches and some individuals contributed.

“We've gotten more money as we've gone on, but we're starting to run low, and part of that is because we extended our area last year,” Bennett said. “A lot of our recipients now are from Greensburg, and we haven't really gotten any help from Greensburg churches.”

Macaleer of Penn Township attributes the lack of participation in part because he has not contacted many of the churches personally. He plans to do so.

“This is a way they can fulfill their mission to help the poor and the needy,” he said. “The (group) helps families get through a difficult period, and that's what churches like to do.”

St. Regis Roman Catholic Church and Level Green Presbyterian recently donated money, but Kowalski said the group needs more financial support to serve the expanded area.

“We just have to get out and get more churches in our community involved,” she said.

Sister of Charity Claudia Stehle of Trafford, business manager at St. Regis and secretary of the committee, said she appreciates its ability to help small parishes that struggle to meet needs of local people.

“I think it's good to consolidate the finances from the churches so that we can help more people and sort of centralize,” Stehle said. “Having a group identify the needs that are out there is crucial.”

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or nchynoweth@tribweb.com.

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