Groups help Islanders stay warm

Jim Walker shows off the pile of wood at St. John Vianney. - Elizabeth Shepherd/staff photo
Jim Walker shows off the pile of wood at St. John Vianney.
— image credit: Elizabeth Shepherd/staff photo

There’s nothing like the luxurious feeling of sitting in front of a crackling fire on a cold winter night. But for a growing number of Island families, a wood fire isn’t a nicety — it’s a necessity that has become increasingly difficult to afford.

And in a time when unemployment is rising and temperatures are falling, a small group of retired parishioners at St. John Vianney Catholic Church has been quietly working overtime to chop, split, stack and deliver free firewood to several needy Island families.

Jim Walker is a former Boeing executive who heads up the project under the auspices of Vashon’s branch of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a nonprofit organization that is affiliated with the Catholic Church.

“This year, we’ve seen an increase in need,” said Walker, a soft-spoken, gray-haired man who, despite his years of experience in the corporate realm, now spends most of his time dressed in rugged jeans and boots, plaid shirts and a well-worn Carhartt jacket. “I suspect it’s different because of word-of-mouth, and we’ve also begun to get referrals from the food bank.”

His group now provides wood for at least eight Vashon families, he said, some of whom have young children, while others are disabled or elderly. And while some are members of St. John Vianney, others don’t have any church affiliation.

The only common denominator, he explained, is that they are all cold.

“The wood is intended for people who truly need it for a source of heat, as opposed to those who just like fires,” he said. “I’ve been to people’s houses when it’s really cold, and they are just bundled up — the kids are bundled. When I see that, I always ask them to let us know when they run down, so that we can come back. They don’t like to ask for help.”

Walker said he began delivering firewood on Vashon almost four years ago, under the direction of Ron Westphal, a parishioner and Society of St. Vincent de Paul volunteer.

Westphal died earlier this year, but not before extracting a promise from Walker that he’d take over the church’s firewood program.

“It’s an important ministry,” Walker said, “and it leads to other things. You meet lots of people.”

Walker hasn’t needed to look for sources of wood since taking over from Westphal, because a large supply has been stored under tarps right on the church property.

In 2007, a logging project was initiated to thin out stands of alder on St. John Vianney’s 60-acre grounds — an effort that yielded more than 20 cords of wood, most of which have been donated to needy families.

Walker estimated that he and a small group of “hard-core regulars” — all of whom are over the age of 60 — spent hundreds of hours chopping up and processing downed trees on the church property.

Now, he says, most of that wood is gone.

“We’ve got enough left to make it through this winter,” he said, adding that he would love to hear about any other sources of firewood on the Island.

Walker’s group isn’t the only one working to provide Islanders with firewood.

Jacques Skeffington, a member of the Presbyterian Church, also works with his church to keep a small cache of firewood on hand for Islanders who can’t afford to buy it, as well as elderly church members who might need it during power outages.

He said he’s also seen an increase in requests.

“Our reserve is fairly small,” he said, “and we only provide it for people who are in need. We want to encourage anyone who can afford to buy wood to go to one of the local proprietors.”

But at least one local firewood supplier, Bob York, said that he too gives away firewood each winter.

“I’m not one that wants somebody out in the cold,” York said. “If somebody did call me through the holidays, we’d find them something to keep them warm.”

Meanwhile, Patti McClements at Puget Sound Energy’s customer service office on Vashon said PSE is eager to work with Islanders who are having a hard time paying their home heating bills.

She encouraged residents to visit the utility company’s office just south of Kathy’s Corner to find out about PSE’s programs for low-income customers.

“We’ll work with a customer as well, if they don’t qualify for the assistance, to help them make out a payment plan that makes sense for their budget,” McClements said.

She added that she suspected Islanders are currently bracing for their next bill from PSE — set to arrive in the mail sometime in early January — which will reflect increased electricity and natural gas usage during December’s extreme cold snap.

“I know there are probably going to be some shocked people,” she said. “But most of the people who come in are already prepared for what’s going to show up in their mailbox.”

Help with heat

For more information or to request wood, call St. John Vianney Church at 567-4149, Vashon Presbyterian Church at 463-2010 or Bob York at (206) 817-2149.

Puget Sound Energy recently announced that qualified Puget Sound Energy customers who need help paying their heating bills this winter will have access to a combined total of nearly $29 million in low-income assistance from PSE and federal funds distributed by local community service agencies.

PSE’s Home Energy Lifeline Program (HELP) will provide almost $15 million, and the federal government’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) will provide $14 million as a result of the signing by Pres. Barack Obama of the omnibus spending bill.

For more information about these programs and other ways to save money on heating costs, visit Puget Sound Energy’s Vashon office at 18125 Vashon Hwy. S.W. or call 463-3688.

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