The low point in Kimberly Henderson's struggle to keep her family warm came in early January when she was too broke to order an oil delivery and had to buy a 5-gallon container to take to her dealer to get enough fuel to make it through the night.
But later that month, with the gauge on her 275-gallon tank again approaching empty, Henderson's fortunes turned around when she got a phone call from a local clergyman: He just received a donation that would provide her with 50 gallons of heating fuel that day.
"I could have cried," said Henderson, a 40-year-old single mother of three who lives in a rental home in downtown Bangor. Like many in Maine, she has been hit hard by heating oil prices that have soared to an all-time high of $3.35 a gallon, or roughly $1 more than a year ago.
While many get help from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the average program benefit of $750 isn't enough to fill the standard oil tank at today's prices. That's why volunteer efforts like the Rev. Gerald Oleson's Sunny Corner Fuel Assistance have sprung up to provide emergency help to those who fall through the cracks.
Maine, where four out of five households heat with oil, is making an unprecedented push to raise private money this winter to help the tens of thousands who walk a financial tightrope in order to balance heating expenses with the costs of other necessities like food and medicine.
Stepped-up efforts are also under way elsewhere in New England.
The nonprofit Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance, which draws from public and private sources, expects to extend $320,000 in assistance this winter through its Oil Bank program. That's up from $128,000 last winter. Central Vermont Public Service Co., the state's largest utility, has enlisted businesses to join in its heating assistance program, which has thus far parceled out about $150,000.
In Maine, donations have ranged from $250,000 from outdoors outfitter L.L. Bean in Freeport to an anonymous fifth-grader's gift of her $5 weekly allowance. Best-selling author Stephen King, who lives in Bangor and is known for his generous support of community fundraising efforts, has made an unspecified contribution to the local community action agency's fuel assistance program.
Keeping folks warm
The state has gotten into the act with its Operation Keep ME Warm, an initiative started five years ago by Gov. John Baldacci that seeks private donations to help poor people pay fuel bills.
While Keep ME Warm brought in between $25,000 and $50,000 in past years, this winter's total has already exceeded $1 million.
"The need is very acute this year and there's a real sensitivity to what's happening. There's an awareness out there that people are hurting and will find themselves without fuel if they don't have assistance," said John Kerry, who heads the state energy office.
A number of towns have joined in, setting up voluntary donor programs or tapping local sources of funds. In Lincoln, for example, the Town Council contributed $5,000 in profits from town wood sales to help needy residents who don't qualify for other programs.
Some communities were staging special fundraisers to help local families keep warm. In Eastport, there was a four-block-long "Speedo and Bikini Dash" in which runners who lined up pledged donations bolted through the downtown area on Valentine's Day.
Another source of help has been Citizens Energy, the Boston-based nonprofit set up by Joseph Kennedy that channels fuel donated by Citgo, the Venezuelan-owned oil company.
Citizens Energy, which ran television ads in Maine in December to promote the program, has been forced to stop accepting new applications because all its resources have been committed, said spokeswoman Ashley Durmer.
"Hard for Yankees to ask for help'
Henderson's good Samaritan was Sunny Corner Fuel Assistance, a program launched the week before Christmas by Oleson, a hospital chaplain who was moved by stories about needy folks desperate for fuel.
Oleson, who had helped in a local food program, "e-mailed my 350 closest friends" to appeal for donations. He also spread the word through the local news media.
The success of his campaign is measured daily when Oleson picks up the mail. On a midwinter morning there were five envelopes totaling $375 — more than enough to supply two households with 50 gallons each.
Unlike programs such as LIHEAP, Sunny Corner does not have strict income guidelines. Oleson arranges for an oil delivery when money is available and puts the caller on a waiting list when the pot is empty.
Thus far, he has collected more than $16,000, which has helped 66 households. But as word of his program has spread, the waiting list has gotten longer and now contains 175 names.
Even so, Oleson worries that many people are shivering in their homes because they're too embarrassed to accept assistance.
"It's a New England thing," he said. "It's very hard for Yankees to ask for help. We would rather struggle through and not say a word."