When the city of Hartford wanted to give Patricia Wrice an award last month, she sent her daughter and grandson to pick it up.
She meant no disrespect, but she'd already missed giving some lectures in a class she teaches at the University of Connecticut's School of Social Work, and she didn't want to miss another one, even to be honored by the Permanent Commission on the Status of Hartford Women for her grassroots leadership.
Awards are well and good, but fighting poverty is a full-time job. Despite, at almost $50,000, Connecticut's highest per capita income in the nation, poverty in the state doesn't quit, so neither has Wrice, now in her 10th year as executive director of Operation Fuel Inc.
To be honest, it feels like her 100th year in nonprofits, those organizations that seek to fill the gaps left in our big, airy social-services safety net. Because who heats homes when people can't afford their bills? That would be the energy assistance people, Wrice's folks.
Operation Fuel came out of the oil embargo of the late '70s, when the cost of home heating oil shot through the roof. The organization celebrates its 30th year with a fundraiser on Friday and like any milestone for a nonprofit that was meant to be a short-term fix, the celebration at Mohegan Sun will be ironic.
"When you look at organizations that deal with basic needs, I think this is almost becoming an institution," says Wrice. "Homeless shelters, us - this is our long-term solution? At best, we're Band-Aids."
This year, she says, their goal is to give out $1 million, but that will be a struggle. The phones at the fuel banks are ringing off the hook, and they need more money. One Operation Fuel study says that poor Connecticut families fall short, on average, $1,100 per year on money they need to comfortably pay their energy bills. Some of those energy bills go unpaid. And some are paid at the expense of other family needs like food or medication or rent. For those families, $1 million is not nearly enough to go around.
"I've seen it with direct services," says Wrice. "Food, medicine, shelter costs - if your child needs school clothes, you're going to send them to school with new sneakers. You'll let one bill slide."
Earlier this year, Gov. M. Jodi Rell talked about extending the deadline for fuel shutoffs for non-payment from April 15 to the end of May. That looked good on paper, but Operation Fuel closes May 31 and runs only a limited energy assistance program through the summer, depending on the funds.
And whatever the cutoff, eventually the bill comes due, Wrice says. "That's the bottom line . We want to keep people's lights on, and we want to keep them warm."
Wrice knows that families living hand-to-mouth deal with the crisis of the moment. They delicately carve and slice the family budget to the point that pediatricians are starting to speak out about the adverse effect high energy costs have on children. A family can always cut back on food. They can load their shopping carts and their children's bellies with filling but not terribly nutritious food. And then children fail to thrive. Day-care centers see it, and soon schools will. Over time, a lack of healthy foods contributes to poor development.
It's one thing to deal with poverty in a poor culture, where everyone takes a hit. It's obscene that here in the land of plenty (with, consequently, some of the nation's highest energy prices), children go hungry while the oil bill gets paid.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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