Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Metropolitan Utilities District and Omaha Public Power District have seen a 38% increase in the number of customers seeking assistance with their bills. Together, they’re trying to raise $100,000 in this year’s virtual Heat the Streets Run & Walk for Warmth, Saturday, March 6.
The money raised will be administered to utility assistance programs and community organizations in 13 counties including Burt, Cass, Colfax, Dodge, Douglas, Johnson, Nemaha, Otoe, Pawnee, Richardson, Sarpy, Saunders, and Washington.
Both utilities are seeing more customers needing help for the first time – customers like Rhonda, a single mother to 7-year-old twins, who is also raising her 5-year-old grandson. She was working as a property manager a little more than a year ago, when the property she was working for was bought out.
“Finding a job seemed impossible due to this virus,” Rhonda said. Companies just weren’t hiring like they had been previously.
“The weight of having unpaid bills is like an anchor. It is heavy and makes you feel stuck. Not only was I impacted, but my children were impacted, also.”
Rhonda reached out to Catholic Charities, a partner agency of Dollar Energy Fund, M.U.D. and OPPD, for help. Catholic Charities has seen an increase in need, as well. They have served more than double the number of people in 2020, compared to 2019, according to Suzi Peklo, the organization’s director of Family Strengthening.
“So many individuals and families have been financially impacted, whether it was because of illness, decrease in job hours, losing employment or having to leave a job to care for children during remote learning,” she said. “When there is financial burden, it affects the whole person. The whole family. The whole community.”
In order for Rhonda to qualify for utility assistance, she had to have her home’s utilities transferred to her name, and the delinquent bill at the property transferred to her new account. This meant taking responsibility for nearly $4,000 in total debt between both M.U.D. and OPPD.
Through the help of LIHEAP (the state’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program), CARES Act funding, and utility assistance programs, Rhonda’s OPPD bill was covered, and she owed just $306 to M.U.D., which she is able to spread out over a 12-month period.
“We know many people in our communities are still struggling during this ongoing pandemic. Both utilities want to make sure customers know we are here to help, and we want to help.” said Juli Comstock, vice president of Customer Service for OPPD. “We want to work with them on realistic payment plans or to connect them to other resources, if needed.”
Comstock urges those having difficulties paying their electricity bill to call OPPD at 402-536-4131 in the Omaha metropolitan area or toll-free at 877-536-4131 outside of Omaha. Those having difficulties with their gas and water bill should call M.U.D. at 402-554-6666 in the Omaha area, or toll-free at 800-732-5864.
“We feel very fortunate to help so many because of our partnership with both utilities and Dollar Energy Fund,” Peklo said. “With their help, individuals and families in need no longer have to worry about whether the limited income they have will go to utilities or putting food on the table.”
The upcoming Heat the Streets Run & Walk for Warmth is the single largest fundraiser for utility assistance programs. This is the 14th year for the event. It is being conducted virtually this year to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
OPPD and M.U.D. encourage participants to complete the 5K run or one-mile walk on March 6 on their own – in neighborhoods, local trails, or even on a treadmill. Custom neck gaiters will be mailed to all registrants who sign up prior to February 28th.
Participants in the 5K may submit their results online. Awards will be mailed to the first-, second- and third-place male and female runners in each of the following age divisions:
- 12 and under, 13-19, 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, and 60+
Register for the event or simply donate to the cause by visiting HeatTheStreetsOmaha.com.
Virtual 5K price:
- $35 (Now through March 6)
Virtual one-mile walk price:
- $25 (Now through March 6)
Children 12 and under receive free registration for the one-mile walk with a paid adult. This year’s event is co-chaired by Tanya Cook, director, M.U.D. Board of Directors, alongside Janece Molhoff, director, OPPD Board of Directors, and her husband, Wayne Molhoff.
Rhonda is now back to working full-time and providing for her family, grateful to Peklo and Catholic Charities, and all of the support she received along the way.
“It seemed that things started moving forward for me and my family once that anchor was not holding me down,” Rhonda said. “Sometimes all it takes is that first step asking for help, and someone helping you.”