In this first of two articles, LIHEAP.org offers a special report surrounding Native American tribes and their support of LIHEAP as a national program that's vital for many tribes. The following interview was written and reported by Jake Brown with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama.
“We have witnessed the unfortunate deaths of those people in our communities who pass away primarily due to the excessive heat we experience,” Martha Gookin, Tribal Member Services Division Director of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama confirms at the top of our conversation about the punishing summer already beating down on her nation. With the Alabama Weather Blog reporting “another hot and humid day, with more sun than clouds” in mid-June, as Director Gookin’s office phones stay lit up enrolling more and more families looking for a break from the heat and the sky-high cooling bills it brings, she highlights LIHEAP as an especially “invaluable service, particularly for our elders. It truly does provide life-saving resources for our Tribal Members.”
Revealing that the aforementioned 90-degree days were actually on the low-end of the life-threatening temperatures her tribe experiences throughout the summer, Director Gookin explains that “we live in an area where summer temperatures can rise well into the 100 (+) degree range and winters can see bitter colds even below zero degrees. The LIHEAP program provides critical financial assistance to our Tribal Members whose income is limited thus making payments for cooling a difficult challenge, and enables these Members to ensure they have cooling. We also provide Crisis LIHEAP that enables low income Tribal Members to have electrical services to remain in their homes when they have situations of loss or reduction of their already limited income through no fault of their own, or when major medical events occur in their lives. Having heating and cooling in our environment is a critical life-saving service.”
Looking back over the thaw of an equally-as-expensive to survive winter where heating bills piled up month after month, the Director pointed to the reality that “this winter was a particularly long and cold season. LIHEAP afforded us the ability to ensure our Tribal Members were able have heating in their homes. Again, the impact of this program is greatest amongst our Tribal elders who would not be able to survive the cold of the winters here without heating in their homes. We see the most volume of applications during the winter season, although the variation is not significant. We generally have similar numbers between winter and summer. We do utilize the Crisis LIHEAP program throughout both seasons as well.”
Counting on the helping hand of LIHEAP year in and out like so many communities throughout the country rural, urban and tribal alike, Director Gookin seeks like all her colleagues to make every dollar stretch to help not only the most families possible, but in the largest number of ways as well, ranging from bill assistance across a variety of energy sources to outreach within the community ahead of enrollment seasons begin to educate them on all the resources available to her tribal members. Starting with the advantage that “we are a small tribe,” her office has been able to give more specific attention to each family applying for LIHEAP, resulting in “over the past 5 years, our utilizing LIHEAP to serve 300 + families annually. The financial benefit averages around $300.00 per household served. Our services are primarily used for energy bills, although we do have a few homes that utilize natural gas services. We do assist with electrical connection fees for those who are transitioning from a homeless situation into a home of their own, which may include rental homes. Our outreach is primarily limited to our Tribal Members and their households. We provide information via a monthly newsletter and on various social media sites. We also host numerous community meetings and community events throughout the year in our efforts to provide outreach to our Tribal Members and their households. We often see our energy providers extend their services to those in need for the specific purpose of saving lives.”
With the Tribe’s continual economic development innovations included the recent acquisition of Media Fusion, a company reported to have over $12 million in revenue. Using funds from acquisitions and operations of various casinos and resort properties, the Poarch Creek Indians have been able to reinvest in the energy security of its tribal members with what Director Gookin outlines as “a Tribal Assistance Program that can be utilized to pay for utilities if the need is determined to meet the program guidelines. The Tribal Assistance Program has the same requirements including loss or reduction of income through no fault of your own, or major medical. This is a one-time use per year program and provides a maximum of $500.00 that must be utilized to pay bills or can provide food/gas vouchers as determined by the verified needs of the Tribal Member household.”
Beyond the tribe’s collective investment in ensuring every family in need of energy assistance throughout the year receives it, the personality spirit of generosity among its individual members is alive and thriving as well, with Director Gookin proudly volunteering in closing that “In my personal energy bill, I pay additional donations just to help cover the cost of energy for those in need in our area.”
Cover image: http://www.nb3foundation.org/poarch-band-of-creek-indians/