A helping hand: Area nonprofits offer utility assistance

Drew Butler
The Daily Ardmoreite

During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, utility companies across the nation placed temporary moratoriums on disconnections in order to help those who may have unexpectedly found themselves without jobs because of shutdowns. Now that businesses are reopening and people are returning to work, utilities companies are once again shutting off utilities for nonpayment, and some people are finding themselves months behind.

In Southern Oklahoma, three nonprofits offer assistance to those who find themselves in such a situation. The Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma, Catholic Charities, and the Salvation Army all offer utility assistance programs. Though the specifications and documentation required to receive assistance vary from organization to organization, they are all willing to help if they can.

Laura Eastes Akers, executive director of the Grace Center, said the three even work together from time to time to help those in need — especially when a client has a bill that is too high for any one organization to cover.

“We often work in tandem, especially when a family is in utter crisis and facing extreme financial hardship,” Akers said. “The situation is not unusual for the Grace Center to be helping along with Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, and maybe a church or two. When we have situations like that it really is a team effort with many different community organizations coming together to apply assistance.”

Akers said the amount of money the Grace Center applies to a utility bill for any one client varies based on the situation.

“We take the time to understand what’s going on, and we want to ask questions to find out about their financial situation,” Akers said. “Because of that, the amount we may choose to apply on a water bill or OG&E bill is based on the person’s situation, their financial situation, and how many people are involved. Is it a family? Is it a senior citizen? Things like that.”

Gerald Johnson, director of Catholic Charities, said the amount of money his organization can apply to a bill is also based on the situation. He can typically help around five or six people a week.

“We try to help them with their bills, but we also talk about budgeting and try to figure out the root of their problem,” Johnson said. “We have another program called family HOPE. That stands for Help, Organize, Prioritize and Empower. That’s a long-term case management to try to discover why they’re really having these issues.”

Johnson said only about 20% of his clients opt into this program, but those who choose to do so often make positive financial progress.

“I had a client who came to me living in her car, but eventually we got her an apartment,” Johnson said. “She got a job, started living on a budget, and she no longer needed the program. We just helped her along the way.”

Debra Douthit, a case worker with the Salvation Army, said the amount she can put towards a utility bill varies based on how high the bill is. This amount can be up to $100, but the money comes with some requirements.

“If their bill is way up there, say $300 or $400, I have to request for them to get it down,” Douthit said. “Once it’s down to the last $100, I can help. That way I know the bill is completely covered, and it can stay on for the next 30 days.”

During the summer, the Salvation Army only offers assistance on electric bills since the funding comes from OG&E. The Grace Center and Catholic Charities can help on electric, water or gas.

Akers said the Grace Center urges anyone who needs help with utilities to reach out as soon as they know they will not be able to pay their bill.

“Our message to our community and our neighbors in need has been don’t wait until you get that disconnect notice if you’re struggling now,” Akers said. “If a bill is coming and you do not have the funds, please reach out to us now so that we can begin to talk to you, ask you questions, and apply assistance.”

Due to the coronavirus, the lobby at the Grace Center is currently closed to the public. To reach out to the Grace Center for utility assistance visit www.ardmoregracecenter.com. The application can be filled out online or printed out. Printed forms, along with a government issued ID and a copy of your most recent utility bill can be emailed to info@ardmoregracecenter.com. Applicants can also take a photo of the same documents and text them to (580) 217-3304.

To reach out to Catholic Charities, call (580) 217-3304, leave a message, and Gerald Johnson will return the call. Applicants must have proof income within the past 30 days. This can be in the form of a job, social security or unemployment, and the utility bill must be in the name of the person applying for aid.

To reach out to the Salvation Army call Debra Douthit at (580) 223-6176.