When energy advocates in California learned that LIHEAP was being threatened at the national level, they learned there was no time left to waste.
“It was then that we realized that we were in a new political environment, and it was up to individuals like us to begin sharing the very real, very important impact of LIHEAP on citizens in California and beyond,” shared Dennis Osmer, executive director of Central Coast Energy Services, a not-for-profit organization that provides a variety of energy services, including consumer energy education and advocacy and utility assistance.
Alongside his team members, Dennis created a new initiative, LIHEAP Helps California, to bring light to the issue of LIHEAP in his local community. The goal of LIHEAP Helps California was to share what normally goes quietly appreciated at Central Coast Energy Services: the outpouring of thank yous and gratitude from California residents who receive LIHEAP funds to keep their homes safe and powered during times of economic crisis.
“We’ve always kept our heads down and gotten the work done to help families in our communities,” Osmer said. “But we work every day knowing that there is no replacement for LIHEAP in our local area. When we stepped back and considered what elimination of the program might mean for people, the impact was tremendous.”
Osmer recognizes that LIHEAP currently serves only six percent of the eligible population in California, but he also notes that for those families, LIHEAP is a significant contribution to their lives. Throughout the year, LIHEAP funds are administered to families who cannot keep their utility bills up to date due to financial stresses. Central Coast Energy Services, in turn, receives notes, letters, thank you cards, and recommendations from the consumers it serves. This gratitude comes in without any solicitation from Central Coast Energy Services—a testament to the impact the LIHEAP funds are having on the families it serves.
“That gratitude is where we started,” Osmer said. “We simply started gathering the stories and sharing them on social media. We took the stories that we already had, and then we reached out to other consumers who were willing to tell their own story, too.”
The result is LIHEAP Helps California: an ongoing effort to capture and share real California families and their experience with LIHEAP funding. The campaign features a website, www.liheaphelpscalifornia.org and active Twitter and Facebook accounts, where dozens of personal stories are shared.
Gathering such personal stories, where individuals and families must share their need for assistance on a public front, can be a challenge for most organizations. The team at Central Coast Energy Services had a special advantage to reaching out to beneficiaries. Central Coast Energy Services has an ongoing business relationship with nearly all of their region’s energy assistance agencies. Central Coast Energy Services developed a management software that makes it easy to track LIHEAP funds, and most of the local agencies use that software to manage their LIHEAP program distributions. Due to these ongoing working relationships, Central Coast Energy Services was able to easily reach out to the agencies and partner with them to get access to families who would be willing to speak out on behalf of LIHEAP and its influence on their lives.
“We knew that sharing stories was going to be more effective than any major political lobbying would be,” Dennis noted, sharing that advocating on behalf of the program is part of their job as an organization.
“This year was a real wake up call for us,” he continued. “We realized that hope is not enough. Hope that politicians and leaders would continue to fund LIHEAP or increase the funding was not going to cut it this year. We needed—and still need—to get active.”
Currently, Osmer and his team are working on setting up meetings between Californians and their representatives in Washington, DC. Sparking conversation between policymakers and the individuals from their home communities is important—whether that conversation happens in California or back in DC, where the votes and decisions are made.
“We need to make this program a priority,” Osmer said. “We live in a community where the loss of LIHEAP would make a significant, noticeable impact, and we don’t want to see that happen.”
In addition to setting up meetings, LIHEAP Helps California also provides several resources to encourage people to connect with Congress and their representatives and get involved on social media.
For more information about LIHEAP Helps California, visit www.liheaphelpscalifornia.org, and follow along as the campaign shares the real stories of families willing to speak up and speak out for LIHEAP.