Look for the helpers: Virginia climate volunteers connect with service providers on weatherization effort

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Home weatherization contractors in the Harrisonburg, Virginia, region are flush with heat pumps, triple-pane windows and insulation. 

But they’re finding it challenging to identify and connect with low-income residents who could benefit from that full array of at-the-ready, energy efficiency upgrades.

Volunteers with the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV) are working to address that divide – through trust and listening.

They’ve recruited four local nonprofits that already interact with low-income people daily to encourage their clients to register for no-cost retrofits offered by Community Housing Partners.

“We’re trying to take action in our own backyard,” said Joy Loving, a CAAV steering committee member. “It wasn’t a tough sell. Some of these nonprofits help pay struggling clients’ utility bills. But unless changes are made, that doesn’t do anything to lower the next month’s bill.”

The advocacy group has been an environmental voice in the Shenandoah Valley since 2008. Observers have praised alliance members for punching above their weight on projects despite lacking a staff and a budget.

Loving applied for a $35,000 grant from Clean Virginia, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit, last spring before the program took shape.

“I told Clean Virginia this would be an experiment and that we’d be forming a model,” she said. “We didn’t have a clear idea of what it would look like yet.”

Her plan, which proved to be prescient, was that the program could be at least loosely based on a one-off initiative spurred by a 2023 query to CAAV from the Harrisonburg Unitarian Universalists: How should the congregation spend $3,500 it had collected to boost residential energy efficiency in the city and surrounding Rockingham County?

The answer? By collaborating with the nonprofit Comité Salvadoreño Paisanos Unidos, or COSPU, to find families living in inefficient homes with substandard appliances. The volunteer-driven organization has empowered immigrants via mentoring, education and advocacy for 14 years.

COSPU used the church’s money to hire a part-time staffer to spread the word about the free energy-saving makeovers.

Even though energy efficiency isn’t part of its core mission, “as a grassroots organization, we have our feet on the ground,” said executive director Crimson Solano, the only other paid employee at COSPU. “Having a total stranger come to the door can be intimidating for the people we serve. We have access and we have trust.”

Thanks to that specialized outreach, Leoncia Cabrera’s trailer home in Harrisonburg has already undergone an energy audit. She is in the contracting queue at Community Housing Partners for upgrades that could be as extensive as a new roof and heat pump.

“This is a lady who has gone through struggles,” Solana said. “Just seeing her face light up when she realized she could get the help she needed, that’s our reward.”

Fueling the people pipeline

Everett Brubaker, based in Harrisonburg, is an outreach specialist on the Energy Solutions team at Community Housing Partners. His employer is the largest of roughly a dozen nonprofits statewide qualified to perform retrofits and repairs. 

Linking homeowners and renters who live paycheck-to-paycheck to a suite of age-and-income qualifying programs is a primary function of that network. Those human connections are all about enhancing affordability, adding value and ensuring residents are safe and healthy in their homes.

Last year, before CAAV’s effort was on the radar, Brubaker’s team weatherized 112 affordable housing townhomes and dozens of area mobile homes, houses and apartments.

Despite his own efforts to enlist families, he is dismayed that the pipeline for services isn’t bursting with applications especially when providers have an abundance of state and federal dollars. 

He hopes the CAAV’s pilot program with the four nonprofits rolled out in January will reverse that trend. The other three groups are Friendship Industries/Able Solutions, Valley Program for Aging Services and United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

“This is a creative, unique way to address this gap,” Brubaker said. “I just think it’s something special.”

CAAV opted to divide the $35,000 grant among the applicants based on stated needs and number of clients they serve. For instance, COSPU will use its $7,500 portion to extend the contract of the part-time outreach staffer through late June.

Nearby, Friendship House is putting its $3,000 toward allowing all 150 employees to fill out the Community Housing Partners’ enrollment form on company time. That effort began in mid-March.

The nonprofit hires people with disabilities and those on the margins with barriers to employment.

“Telling people about what Everett’s organization does isn’t enough,” said Beth Campbell, who serves as the equivalent of a social worker in the human resources department. “We wanted to know what we could do to actually enroll people with high energy burdens.”

She figures filling out the form will take roughly 30 minutes if employees have the proper documentation with them.

In one-on-one conversations with employees, Campbell fielded endless stories about how high electricity and grocery bills leave people short every month.

“Helping somebody to pay a bill just kind of patches a hole that will open up again,” said Campbell, an employee since 2015. “You can cover it and cover it and cover it or move money around and still be in that cycle forever.

“We want them to be able to finally get ahead and change that situation by putting money into a college fund or a retirement fund.”

Solano views energy efficiency as one more benefit COSPU could offer to community members who are often marginalized because they aren’t fluent in English or are afraid to ask for something they fear could put their livelihoods in jeopardy.

His organization’s outreach strategy includes tactics like handing out flyers at neighborhood festivals and events, inviting clients to educational forums and providing one-on-one application assistance at COSPU’s office.

“When you find out there’s something available to help people struggling to put food on the table, you jump in,” Solano said. “I’m embarrassed to say we waited so long to jump on the wagon of this program.”

Warming homes and hearts

Early on in its brainstorming sessions, CAAV floated the idea of using the Clean Virginia grant to hire one coordinator tasked with generating referrals for Community Housing Partners.

Leaders at the participating cross-section of nonprofits rejected that top-down proposal as too complicated and layered.

Looking back, CAAV steering committee chair Andrew Payton is delighted they spoke up because it avoided adding what likely would have been an ineffective layer of bureaucracy.

“Doing it this way feels a lot more effective than trying to do that work ourselves,” Payton said. “The money not only helps them broaden the way they meet their mission, but also allows them to accomplish something they don’t have on their agendas.”

He also noted that energy efficiency not only cuts emissions of greenhouse gases, but also addresses home health and safety issues embodied in the environmental justice realm.

“For me, a project like this is tangible and specific because we can see how many houses will become more energy efficient because of the work we’re doing,” Payton said. “That’s what feels really cool.”

In due time, Brubaker’s team will collect those figures.

Payton and Loving will be evaluating their experiment with all of the partners. They’re already talking about seeking more funding to expand its shoestring budget and perhaps expand its reach via a conservation coalition.

But during this brief interlude, Loving is content to know that volunteers in a place near the Blue Ridge Mountains recognized for its culture of giving and caring are warming homes — and hearts — by connecting neighbors in need with resources that can shrink their energy bills.

“I’m just grateful we listened to the agencies,” she said. “From that, we learned that to find the people who need the help we need to go to the people already helping them.”

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