08 May HOW ONE PHONE CALL SAVED A FARM
Ginny* lives simply on her small farm and usually manages to get by financially. As the weather began to cool down in the fall of 2017 though, she found herself falling behind on her electrical invoices. With an outstanding bill of $700 that was more than she could afford, she couldn’t avoid the disconnection.
Ginny was distraught her cows would soon be in danger as the approaching winter loomed closer. She considered selling the farm to ensure they’d remain healthy. As a first step, her utility suggested she call the Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP) to apply for an emergency grant to help offset her arrears and regain service.
She had never been in this position before and felt devastated and ashamed as she dialed the toll-free number 1-855-487-5327 and waited in the queue for her turn.
HELP IS AVAILABLE FOR ENERGY BILLS
When Ginny called into what is often called the LEAP line, ElizaJane answered the phone.
ElizaJane started working in the United Way Simcoe Muskoka call centre in October 2017. With a passion for quality customer service, she was excited to learn her new role as a Consumer Advocate would be to assist callers in applying for grants and other supports to manage their energy bills.
As one member of the call centre team based in Midhurst, she’d also be able to give callers from all across Ontario information about other helpful resources in their local communities. During her extensive training, ElizaJane’s new colleagues told her many stories about the people they’d helped and how rewarding their jobs were.
In completing the quick application over the phone, ElizaJane was thrilled to tell Ginny she qualified for assistance. LEAP, a program funded by Ontario utility companies to assist their low-income customers, would provide Ginny with the maximum one-time grant of $500 (plus an additional $100, because she relies on electrical heat). In the same call, ElizaJane also helped her apply for the Ontario Electricity Support Program (OESP), which provided a bill credit that would recur monthly for two years – after which she could reapply for another two-year period.
But ElizaJane wasn’t finished. Ginny also qualified for the Home Assistance Program, which means she could get new energy-efficient light bulbs, power bars and even larger appliances like fridges and window air conditioners AT NO COST!
“You get tears on both sides of the line,” ElizaJane says of her conversation with Ginny and the many others callers she’s spoken to since. “We change lives – it can make a difference in whether or not they can eat. It’s cool.”
With the help of ElizaJane, United Way Simcoe Muskoka and the energy programs, Ginny was able to sell some additional hay to make up the full amount of arrears owning and her electrical service was restored.
WHY DOES UNITED WAY TALK TO ENERGY CUSTOMERS?
Since the LEAP program was established back in 2008, United Way Simcoe Muskoka (UWSM) has been the lead agency administering the program across the province. It has grown substantially since the early years when a couple of dedicated UWSM staffers managed the program with spreadsheets.
Today, a specialized team of more than 10 full-time Customer Advocates operate a high-tech web-based program that assists them in handling more than 300 calls each day.
To ensure the success of the program, participating utilities (currently Enbridge Gas Distributing, Hydro One, InnPower, Alectra Utilities, Union Gas and Veridian Connections) rely heavily on the cooperation of UWSM and its network of social-service agencies across Ontario. The community-based agencies help verify paperwork and connect applicants to other relevant programs and service closer to home.
5 WAYS UWSM’S CALL CENTRE BENEFITS SIMCOE MUSKOKA
UWSM’s call centre is a social enterprise. According to the Government of Ontario:
“Social enterprises use business strategies to achieve a social or environmental impact. While generating revenues from the sale of goods and services, social enterprises also expressly intend to create positive outcomes, and they measure their results. As their business grows, the social impact grows.”
In addition to receiving and delivering utility-funded grant monies, UWSM is also paid to manage the program. By operating the call centre as a social enterprise, UWSM is engaged in mission-based activities that benefits Simcoe Muskoka by:
1. Contributing to the local economy
The call centre has created and maintains more than 10 full-time jobs located in Midhurst.
2. Delivering grants to low-income residents
In 2017 alone, 1,286 utility customers living in Simcoe Muskoka received a combined grant total in excess of $564,000.
3. Connecting residents to other helpful services
All callers, regardless of whether or not they are eligible for grants, are referred to the toll-free helpline 2-1-1, which connects them to relevant programs and services in their community.
4. Funding local programs
In 2016, UWSM’s social enterprise revenue provided the means to create an entirely new community investment stream called the Collaborative Fund. So far, three initiatives in our region are being fueled by this new fund:
– The Accessibility Resource Centre (via Independent Living Services of Simcoe County & Area)
– The Clearview Youth Centre
– South Georgian Bay’s Mental Health Response Team
5. Offsetting Expenses
Social enterprise revenue also offset many operational expenses for the entire organization – so the impact of donor dollars is maximized in our local communities.
“Many people don’t realize they need the help until they’re too far gone and they’re overwhelmed,” ElizaJane reflects on the conversations she’s had and the letters of appreciation she’s received in the months since she started at United Way Simcoe Muskoka. “Sometimes it’s as simple as ‘okay, you’re approved.”
Emergency calls should be directed to 911, but there are other supports available 24/7 – and in many languages.
*this caller’s name and other personal details have been altered to protect this caller’s privacy.