JEFFERSON — Keep Ashe Warm is already familiar to many in Ashe County for its past chili lunches and coat drives, but until recently it was an unofficial effort by the employees of Ashe County Department of Social Services to further assist county residents. This past winter, under direction of Tracie Downer, director of Ashe DSS, it has become officially incorporated as a cooperative effort involving both DSS employees and concerned citizens and received its nonprofit status from the IRS, making contributions tax-deductible for donors.

The need was born from the concerns of the social workers for the clients they assist daily, when every winter the requests for monetary heating assistance far outpace the available funding from government programs and regional sources, like Blue Ridge Energy’s Operation Round-Up, BROC, Salvation Army and local churches.

During this past heating season, an average of 100 applicants per week requested DSS heat assistance. After available funding sources were exhausted, more than 300 households were still without help.

It is not just the poor who need assistance. Self-sustaining families can find themselves in a financial bind due to the seasonality of employment, like construction, agricultural or landscape workers. Some have short-term hardships from illness or injury, or the severity of winter’s cold requires more fuel than was planned for. The government programs have certain criteria, like income limits, that do not adjust for special needs like ongoing out-of-pocket medical expenses that devour a family’s available income. Keep Ashe Warm allows for those “special case” considerations, and directly pays the fuel vendors.

Keep Ashe Warm, Inc. seeks to build a financial reservoir to enable DSS to keep saying yes to the clients who are most vulnerable, children, poor, sick and elderly, who often have to choose between buying food, medicine or heat. Local efforts, such as a fund-raising breakfast at Shatley Springs Restaurant Friday, Sept. 27, the traditional Fall Chili Lunch, and other funding drives are in the planning stages, while applications will be made for grants and corporate support. Donations are welcome at any time of year and may be addressed to Keep Ashe Warm, Inc., P.O. Box 143, Jefferson, NC, 28640. For more information, call Ashe County DSS at (336) 846-5719 and ask to speak with Vickie Hartsoe, Angie Ritter or Angie Allen. Neighbors helping neighbors is a big part of what makes Ashe County such a special place.

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