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A week of warmth thaws homes and hearts

You remember the quote, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

It’s something Sue Sherer thinks about every day as she fights to help more than a half million Michiganders keep their lights and heat on as the weather quickly marches toward winter. Many of them are Detroiters who have all of a sudden found themselves among the ranks of the suddenly poor.

As CEO of The Heat and Warmth Fund or THAW she knows this is a herculean task but one that offers rewards each time THAW helps a family stay warm. She has some help but also needs yours.

THAW just launched a 10-day “Week of Warmth” campaign to provide more than $1 million in energy assistance to vulnerable Michigan families. Nationally acclaimed recording artist KEM is working with THAW this year and helping raise funds for the 2011 fundraising campaign. It’s a drop in the bucket. It could be as much as a $1 billion problem in Michigan, Sherer says.

Most often those who come to her organization for help have never been in this situation before. “These are people who used to have two incomes and then went down to one and then to none,” she says. “They didn’t live beyond their means. They just need a bridge to get back on their feet.”

She says she’s visited many homes where all of a sudden instead of the toasty warmth of a furnace a wood burning stove is now the only source of heat. In one case she visited a family of five with two high-level special needs kids and a mom who home schooled all the kids. The dad had a good job in the auto industry, which went by the wayside in the last economic downturn. He started doing short-term contract work but didn’t make enough to pay all the bills. So he rigged a generator outside his house to run a few appliances in the kitchen. That’s no way to live, Sherer says.

In another case a woman who lived in one of the more upscale suburbs of Detroit was very well off one day and not able to pay her bills the next. Her husband died and left her with four kids and nothing else. She’s losing her home and can’t pay the bills. From riches to rags in a very short time.

“There is sometimes a lot of judging of people in the space they are in,” Sherer said. “Our job is to meet them where they are and try and connect them with what they need. We know that it is hard to ask for help. Lots of people who come to THAW are first timers … not those with a permanent cycle of poverty who come back for help over and over again.”

Help for them is in jeopardy.

In Michigan there are about 615,000 people who rely on the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to help pay their utility bills. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama’s administration proposed cuts of nearly $2.5 billion, equal to a 50 percent reduction of the authorized $5.1 billion in LIHEAP funding. While proposals in Congress are calling for a more modest 25 percent cut, funding for Michigan residents could be reduced to $120 million next year, compared to the $326 million this year.

The Week of Warmth campaign will raise additional money to help these low-income families heat their homes as the threat of significant cuts in critical federal and state assistance looms.

A gift from Fisher Foundation is helping families in the Brightmoor community and other organizations and people are on the front lines as well. DTE Energy is partnering with THAW to effort to raise additional dollars to help fill a potential gap of hundreds of millions of dollars that are possible with the proposed federal budget cuts.

“With the potential cuts to state and federal payment assistance funding and with social service budgets stretched thin, low-income customers will likely find themselves struggling to pay their winter energy bills,” says Gerry Anderson, chairman, president and CEO of DTE Energy. “DTE Energy, in partnership with The Heat and Warmth Fund (THAW), recognizes the need to bring corporate, individual and community partners together to provide assistance and holistic solutions.”

Anderson is chairing the Week of Warmth. He is joined by Honorary Chairs Gov. Rick Snyder, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. and Cindy Pasky, founder and CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions as well as Phillip Cooley, owner of Slow’s Bar BQ, Bertram Marks, general counsel Detroit Council of Baptist Pastors, and  James Vella, president, Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services.

Nationally acclaimed recording artist KEM has also joined the team and is encouraging Detroiters to help their neighbors stay warm this winter.

You may remember Sherer from her stint as executive director of the Host Committee for the Detroit Super Bowl XL. She did that job with style, flair and a continually positive attitude. Today she’s taken those qualities to THAW and is trying to get the same  neighborhood commitment and passion for change she found during the Super Bowl at THAW.

“I was so thankful there was so much energy around Super Bowl. People stepped up for that and I am searching for a way to inspire people to step up in the same way for THAW … a way to make people understand who these people are and what they can do individually to make an enormous impact and help people have just the basics,” she says.

To donate, you can use your mobile phones and text the word THAW to 50555 to make a $10 donation, or log on to www.thawfund.org.

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