NW Natural's Gas Assistance Program is there to help normal people who are having trouble paying their heating bills
by: Submitted photo, Bridgeport Village shoppers huddle around the cozy fires in the 2007
version of the Warm Zone, where they fought off the cold and learned about Northwest Natural’s Gas Assistance Program.

When the temperatures drop, far too many local families are faced with the reality of not being able to afford heat for their homes.

That's where NW Natural's Gas Assistance Program comes in. As stated in a release by the company, GAP is an 'important initiative that aids low-income families in Oregon and Southwest Washington with their natural gas payments, so families can keep the heat on when state and federal assistance runs out.'

Jenna Gross-Cooper of NW Natural said GAP was created by the company in 1982 to aid its customers in paying their gas bills. The program is funded by tax-deductible donations from the NW Natural's shareholders, customers and employees, which are collected and deposited by the United Way.

'A lot of these households, they're people who are out there working . . . they're doing what they can to make ends meet,' she said.

Gross-Cooper said people qualify for the program based on income requirements, with a maximum award of $150 per year. GAP mirrors LIHEAP for Oregon (Low Income Energy Assistance Program), the guidelines for which are set by Oregon Housing and Community Services. Priority is given to elderly, disabled and to homes with children under the age of 6 living in them.

Someone who knows the value of this program is Diana Bell (her name has been changed to protect her privacy), who lives near Beaverton. Bell, the single parent of a 4-year-old, lost her retail job a few weeks ago as the result of slowing business. In order to go to interviews for a new position, she must hire a babysitter. Though she gets some help from her family, she said money is very tight right now.

'There are many people out there like me who just happened to fall on hard times in this tough economy,' she said. 'I want to work, and I'm doing as much as I can to find a job so I can take care of my son. Every little bit helps, and I'm so thankful that GAP is there to help us out this winter.'

Shortly after Bell lost her job, her son had to have surgery for a swelling on his cheek. The Oregon Health Plan covered medical bills, but the possibility of looking for work has all but vanished during her son's recovery. Bell said she was worried that she wouldn't be able to make utility payments while between jobs - that was, until she heard about GAP. She said that the $150 she will receive from the agency to help pay her heating bill will go a long way.

'For me, the choice came to this: Pay the sitter to watch my son while I look for work, or pay utilities. Without GAP, it would've been really hard to find the money to pay for the gas bill,' she said.

During 2007, GAP provided $200,000 to help 1,655 customers in need of assistance; this year the company hopes to raise even more. One way that dream could become a reality is through special promotions, such as the NW Natural GAP wishing tree and warm zone that will stand near center court of Bridgeport Village through Dec. 24. The way it works is simple: Shoppers wishing to donate can pluck an ornament off the wishing tree and then donate to GAP at the nearby guest services kiosk. The warming center will provide a warm place for Bridgeport shoppers to enjoy a fireplace and sip a hot drink while seeking shelter from the elements, a good reminder of the luxury of heat.

'(GAP) is really, really important,' Cooper-Gross said. 'We absolutely expect the current economic situation to impact the need for GAP funds. That's why we are really working to get the word out about GAP so people will join with our shareholders and donate what they can. It's important to note every single penny donated goes directly to program.'

NW Natural's Corporate Philanthropy Fund has already contributed $50,000 to the program, which hopefully will inspire others to give to GAP.

'Our customers are really generous,' Gross-Cooper said. 'They always have been. We really hope they recognize this need.'

Gross-Cooper said pride can sometimes deter someone from asking for help, but by making NW Natural aware of the situation, they will be able to explore some options together.

'We also really want to encourage anyone who is struggling to pay their gas bill to contact us,' she said, adding that the company is flexible and will work with them to try to keep their heat turned on. She also mentioned something called Equal Pay, which evens out the gas bill through the year and balances it so customers pay the same amount each month. This not only takes the surprise out of spiking gas bills during the winter, it also can reduce heating payments by up to 45 percent.

'It's easier to budget when you know what to expect,' she said. 'We work with customers at great lengths to keep the gas on. We really hope they do contact us.'

Donations to the fund can be made at any time throughout the year by simply clicking on NW Natural's Web site:

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