Heat Up St. Louis keeps area warm
Local nonprofit works to find heating solutions for at-risk residents in the region
By Nicholas Elmes
Think of the last time you were outside for any length of time this winter. Remember how your fingers and toes slowly grew numb and eventually started to hurt?
Remember how your face and any other exposed skin chilled and grew sensitive to the touch?
Think about how you longed to get inside and warm up, to feel comfortable and safe again.
Now imagine that when you go into your house, your house is as cold or even colder than it is outside. Imagine that there is no relief to the reality that is cold weather in St. Louis.
The way you feel right now is, literally, the cold reality for many of the poor, elderly and disabled every winter in the St. Louis area.
Thankfully, if you find yourself in this reality, there is help.
For the past 16 years, Heat Up St. Louis has been helping to find heating solutions for the poor, senior and disabled residents of St. Louis and 13 surrounding counties.
Heat Up St. Louis Board Chair Melanie DiLeo said the organization worked closely with social services, other nonprofits and utility companies to find the best solutions for those in need.
“We all work together to help someone get their bills in line and turn the heat on,” she said. “There are seniors who are freezing and they don’t know whether to pay the utility bill or get medicine. We don’t want people to have to make these life-or-death choices. We are all in this together. It is not to anyone’s advantage to have someone die because they are afraid to turn the heat on. At the end of the day, you want a community that is healthy where nobody is dying because they are cold.
“If you are having problems with heat then chances are you are having problems with a lot of other stuff,” she added. “If we can keep the heat on and the keep the warm then there is a good chance we can help get the other things fixed as well.”
“You have to have warmth to keep people alive and give them a quality of life,” said founder and Acting Executive Director Gentry Trotter, explaining that the organization was formed to address a variety of needs including heating and cooling assistance.
“We really work as a consortium,” he said, noting that Heat Up St. Louis is run by a 57-member, all-volunteer board, which includes local leaders like the city mayor and county leaders as well as representatives from local power companies and media organizations. “We focus on public education, safety advocacy, collecting and distributing funding, networking with different organizations and fostering responsibility.”
He said the organization was initially formed to fill a void in services.
“The first thing we did was to make sure we had a hotline where people could immediately get help,” said Trotter. “The second concept was to act as a funding source. The next thing was advocacy, to make sure that we had voiced to let people know that being without heating is a health and safety issue.”
He said that aspect allowed the organization to work with electric and fuel companies to find solutions for those who cannot pay their bill during cold months.
“We also deal with public education, working with the Fire Chiefs Association to talk about unsafe heating practices,” he said. “Many people rely on unsafe ways of heating in their homes and a lot of those result in tragedy.”
But while Heat Up St. Louis provides heating assistance, Trotter was eager to point out that they also encouraged responsibility among those they help.
“Our policy is that we only help people once a year,” he said. “That gives them an opportunity to get on a budget plan. We insist that all of our partners tell people that they still have to pay something on their bill each month. We are a charity with a heart, but we also have a mind to realize that the more that these payments go south the more like it is that there will be a rate increase which will hurt the people who can’t afford it.”
But even with those restrictions, the organization has been able to help over 320,000 people since it started, according to DiLeo.
“We have raised about $15 million over the past 16 years,” she said. “All of that has gone directly to help those in need. There are no paid salaries, so every dollar we raise goes to help those in need.”
She said that fundraising efforts took a variety of forms, including direct donations online, by mail, or at UMB Banks.
“We are also getting ready to do one of our biggest fundraisers, Hardees Rise and Shine, on Feb. 11,” she said, noting that that fundraiser has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single day in previous years. “We have hundreds of people who help with it, from the Mayor of St. Louis to county executives to lots of amazing volunteers who go out and stand in the cold taking donations as people drive up to Hardees.”
She said Hardees sells a special $1 egg biscuit for the fundraiser, with all proceeds going to help Heat Up St. Louis.
“This happens at all the Hardees in St. Louis and surrounding counties,” she said. “A lot of people will buy biscuits for their entire office.”
She said Heat Up Saint Louis was a very unique nonprofit, both for the work it did and for its ability to convert all donations into direct aid.
“I don’t know of another organization like ours anywhere in the country,” she said. “It just works. There is someone answering our phone all the time, there is someone monitoring our website all the time. We have this incredible resource that is dedicated to helping people have heat in the winter and it really does help.”
To get heating assistance from Heat Up St. Louis, call 314-241-7668, or visit http://heatupstlouis.org.
CUTLINE: Photos courtesy of Heatupstlouis.org
Cover-heatup1 City residents who were pre-registered for the Fourth Annual Heat-up/Ameren Winterizing forum recently held in October, 2016 seek help from Heat Up St. Louis to reduce their heating or cooling bills before going into the deep winter months. In October, more than $700,000 was donated in one day to help clients with their bills.
Cover-heatup2 Rev. Earl E. Nance, Jr., chair emeritus Heatupstlouis.org (right) helps a needy client during the Fourth Annual Heat-up/Ameren Winterizing forum, where many city and county residents are not only helped with their utility bills, but they attend mini-classes on knowing their utility rights; energy efficiency and financial literacy. This annual outreach includes consortium members Missouri Public Commission, Ameren Missouri, Laclede Gas, St. Louis County, St. Louis City, Health Department and eight social service agencies.