Charlotte’s Moment

I had the blessing of visiting with Charlotte about her experiences with Bridges of Hope over the last couple of years. Charlotte is a wonderfully warm, compassionate, confident, and strong woman. She didn’t always feel that way, though.SONY DSC

A few years ago, low self-esteem and a general feeling of being “lost” had taken their toll on Charlotte. She found herself feeling depressed and alone and spent the next few months trying to get her life back on track.

Charlotte told me that at first, “it felt like nobody was interested in helping.” Then she received a letter inviting her to participate in the Parent Support Outreach Program at Bridges of Hope, and she was excited. Charlotte recalled, “before that, I thought everything was done for. I didn’t know where to turn.”

Charlotte connected with us and soon started working with one of our staff, Jennifer, who helped her identify goals and break them down into manageable steps. One of those goals was to find affordable housing. The Lutheran Social Service HOPE Housing program was able to assist Charlotte with the funds needed to rent a new place; however, there was one small barrier: Renter’s Insurance. Charlotte was able to put some money toward it, and Bridges helped with the rest. In talking with me, Charlotte reflected that it was a little thing that made a huge difference.”

Charlotte at her college graduation with her mentor, Sheila!

Charlotte at her college graduation with her mentor, Sheila!

Now that stable housing was in place, Charlotte could focus on being a good parent to Hunter and on being a great student, since she was also enrolled in classes at Central Lakes College (CLC). A few months later, Bridges of Hope invited Charlotte to participate in our Side by Side Mentoring Program. She needed a little extra boost of support, and our volunteer Mentors provided just that.

Charlotte shared, “I looked forward to the monthly meetings, the text messages from Sheila, and coffee dates with Jan [both Charlotte’s Mentors]. They even brought meals over a few times when I was studying!”

Charlotte graduated from CLC this year and now and works at Lutheran Social Service helping others through difficult situations.“If it weren’t for Bridges, I really don’t think I would have graduated.”

When I asked her what is different now, Charlotte said, “I’ve finally figured out who I am; I feel more confident and connected. For the first time, I feel like I have people in my life who are proud of me.”

We are so proud of Charlotte for her hard work!

SONY DSC————————————————————————

Help make more stories like Charlotte’s possible:

  • Make a gift today to help us reach our $80,000 Fall Campaign goal. We just reached the halfway point and have two weeks left to raise another $40,000 to help serve the households (like Charlotte’s) that will still reach out to us this year.
  • Shop at Common Goods; proceeds stay local and help us help families in the Lakes Area.

What You Might Not Know About the Cold Weather Rule

200362711-001

As we experience God’s blessings during this fall season, we think about colorful leaves,apple cider, a trip to the pumpkin patch, and other fun outdoor festivities. None of us really wants to think about what is right around the corner…winter (ugh!).

Some of us rake our leaves & make room in the garage for the car to be parked. Others put plastic on windows and winterize the air conditioning unit. Some people look forward to winter for the snowy fun it brings, but some of our neighbors feel anxious about the toll that higher heating bills will take on their family’s finances.

You may be thinking, “They’ll be okay, we have a Cold Weather Rulethey can’t be shut off; it’s the middle of winter.” And, you’re right, we do have a Cold Weather Rule. However, there are some common misconceptions about exactly how it works.

Actually, “THEY” (your utility company) CAN SHUT YOUR HEAT OFF.

Thankfully, Centerpoint Energy recently published a nice summary about the Cold Weather Rule. Click here to learn more.

If you find yourself in a situation where you need to rely on the Cold Weather Rule, please read through the link above carefully and follow the steps outlined. Here is a brief summary to avoid being shut off this winter:

  1. The Cold Weather Rule applies from October 15 through April 15.
  2. You MUST contact your utility provider and ask to set up a payment plan under the Cold Weather Rule.
  3. Keep up with your payment plan. You can be shut off if you miss a payment or make a payment less than the agreed amount.
  4. Take it seriously if you receive a past due notice from your heating utility provider.

If you are experiencing financial hardship, here are some budgeting tips that can help:

  1. Keeping a roof over your head needs to be a priority for your budget.
  2. Check with your utility provider to see if you can get onto a budget plan all year round.
  3. Utilize resources like Ruby’s Pantry or your local food shelf to free up some of your food budget, which in turn can be used for heating expenses.
  4. Look into whether or not Energy Assistance through Lutheran Social Service or HeatShare through The Salvation Army is an option for your household.

______________________________

If you or someone you know needs assistance with accessing resources for heating costs, please call Bridges of Hope at 218-825-7682.

If you are interested in making a donation to help Bridges of Hope to assist families in need, please click here or mail your gift to PO Box 742, Brainerd, MN 56401.

Thank you for helping us build Bridges!

 

 

Kimberly’s Moment

It’s that dreaded feeling you get…when you realize you have just been in a car accident.

What happened before the accident is usually a blur, but what happens after an accident can leave you feeling just as foggy. At Bridges of Hope we try to help lift some of the fog for the clients that reach out us. Some have experienced a figurative “car accident” that has left them spinning emotionally, and others have experienced a literal car accident that has caused injury in other ways, like in the case of Kimberly:

Apartment Building PicKimberly called Bridges of Hope a few months after she had had a car accident that left her needing neck surgery. During her recovery, Kimberly was unable to work and was let go from her job. Without any income, Kimberly also found herself without a home shortly afterward. She moved in with her mother and younger brother.

During her three-month-long recovery, Kimberly’s family was helping her pay her other bills, and they all just managed to get by. At the end of the three months, Kimberly was going to be released from her work restrictions and had already found a new job that was just a few blocks away from an available apartment. When Kimberly  connected with Bridges, she was seeking resources for the first month’s rent and damage deposit to get into this apartment.

Since her mother lives out of town and Kimberly does not have a vehicle, an apartment close to her employment is ideal. Lutheran Social Service (LSS) is one of our community partners that we regularly collaborate with in instances when a client needs help with housing. Bridges of Hope and LSS both have guidelines to ensure that the rent is sustainable for the client based on their current situation, and typically that means the housing is close to 30% of their income and fits into their budget. Based on these factors, Bridges and Lutheran Social Service were able to assist Kimberly in getting into her new apartment.

When we followed up with her a few weeks later, Kimberly stated she is loving her new job and has made great strides in her recovery. She is extremely grateful for the help!

And we are grateful to be able to be there for people in our community like Kimberly. Thank you for helping us help others! For more information about how you can get involved, please visit our website.

Iris’ Moment

IrisIris was a widow living on her own, with her beloved dog Rosie as her constant companion. She was continually struggling to make ends meet on a fixed income, but she reached a breaking point when she received a disconnect notice on her electric last spring.

Iris’ adult son was able to help with her mortgage once in awhile; and Iris also had good friend, also a widow, with whom she would frequently car pool–but this bill was something that neither could help with.

By the time she called Bridges of Hope, Iris was 5 months behind and had accumulated a bill that had nearly reached $1,000. She had been receiving Energy Assistance through Lutheran Social Service over the winter and had been under the impression that it was taking care of her monthly bills, but in fact the assistance had run out in February, and it had only been covering a portion of her full bill amount each month. Iris had already sought out the Salvation Army for Heat Share assistance, and they were able to help with a small portion toward the total past-due bill. She was also working with her mortgage company to get her monthly mortgage payment lowered, so her entire expenses each month would be slightly more affordable.

After working with Iris over the phone, I was able to meet with Iris and look at her budget even more in-depth. Based on the information, I suggested she connect with Financial Counseling from LSS, who specializes in that kind of assistance. At that point, Iris pulled out two sheets of paper from her purse–she had already completed financial counseling with them and had her new budget right there for me to look at! Iris had still not heard back from her mortgage company about a lower payment, but she was expecting that once it was processed, her living situation would be sustainable in the future. We knew if that happened, and if we could help Iris get caught up on the electric bill, she should be able to afford her life going forward.

About a week later, Iris stopped into the Bridges of Hope office to let me know her mortgage payment had been cut in half–great news! I helped her start the process of finding resources to get her house weatherized before next winter, and I was able to let her know that Bridges would be helping her with her electric bill as well. She expressed her thanks, saying she couldn’t thank Bridges of Hope enough. Two weeks after that, we made a follow-up call with Iris to see how things were going. It happened to fall right on her 80th birthday, and she let us know that she was now caught up on all of her monthly bills and was even putting away a portion of money into savings every month. What a great turnaround for Iris and Rosie both!

If you or someone you know has fallen into hard times and could use some support bridging the gap back to stability, please call Bridges of Hope at 218.825.7682, or learn more about our services here.

Rachel is the Living Proof

Here at Bridges of Hope, almost 100% of the clients we work with are struggling financially to some extent. One of our main goals when helping a family navigate their way through a financial crisis is to try to prevent the situation from happening again, which can be pretty tough. Most of us can be a bit “stuck” in our financial habits–or don’t even know we have financial habits, let alone knowing how to go about changing them. And I’m the first to admit that in my own life, personal finances can be a difficult area to talk about openly with another person. Some of the families we work with may not be ready to adjust their financial priorities yet, but we believe it is still important to present them with some of their options anyway, so that they know how to access the help they need when they’re ready to make a change.

One of the ways we determine what those options are is by completing a budget worksheet with the family. By collecting a household’s monthly income and expenses, we are able to quickly identify any obvious gaps that low-income families might have, such as eligibility for a local food program or seasonal utility assistance to help their own funds for food and utilities stretch further. Our Financial Resources Program is specifically designed to match people with the resources they qualify for, and we have made a practice of seeking to become the local “experts” on both the area resources that exist and the guidelines or criteria needed to access them.

TV AntennaWhile working with a family, we often have to have the tough conversation of sorting out what constitutes a “need” versus a “want,” and prioritizing which kinds of bills are the most important to pay first and on time. We usually suggest expense-reducing options for categories that fall closer to the “wants” side, such as finding less expensive phone plans and cutting down or eliminating cable and internet plans. For example, our community has several free resources for accessing the internet, including our area libraries, as well as our local Workforce Center for job seekers (for resume help as well as seeking job openings). I am proud to report that I have even followed my own suggestions and am living proof that someone can still enjoy television in 2012 with just an antenna, which does not require a contract or monthly subscription fee.

This time of year, we also have the sometimes-difficult “Plans for Your Tax Return” conversation with our clients. For many of the families we work with, it can be daunting to figure out the best use of a tax return, especially if it exceeds their usual monthly income (which last year averaged about $475/mo for each member of a household). We work with families to create a plan that will not only address their immediate crisis but also help create a more long-term cushion against future crises. For example…

  • If the client has been struggling to pay their car insurance each month, we may suggest that they use their tax return to pay a full year’s worth of car insurance. Not only will their car insurance be paid for a full year, but they will also save money overall, since they can avoid monthly installment fees.
  • If a client is struggling to pay their rent consistently and on time, we might encourage them to contact their landlord to see if they can pay for several months’ worth of rent at once (landlords tend to appreciate payment in full–and in advance). Sometimes this arrangement can even give the client some flexibility to negotiate for lower rent, if they are offering to pay a significant amount at one time.
  • If the immediate crisis has been resolved and there are no other no major financial issues at the time, we can suggest the client start an “Emergency Fund” at a local bank, to prevent a future crisis from happening in the event of a job loss or illness.

We also recognize that the interactions we have with our clients are limited in scope, and sometimes more in-depth financial literacy education is necessary. In this event, we make referrals to other programs with just this specialty, such as Lutheran Social Services Financial Counseling, or an extended training course such as Financial Peace University, a 13-week money management program often offered at our local churches.

I am currently working with a client who has taken steps to make these kinds of changes in her budget:

Rachel, a single mother of three, was working nearly 35 hours a week and had a fairly stable financial picture, when her child support abruptly ended, causing a hole of over $600.00 in her budget each month that she had counted on to care of her children’s needs. Through our work together, Rachel has cut her cell phone entirely and retained her land line, saving $85.00 each month. She made the tough decision to completely cut out her cable and internet packages, saving an additional $120.00/month. Due to the change in household income, Rachel now qualifies for food support and has applied for that program to help make up some of the deficit she now has.

We are continuing to work with Rachel, helping advocate for her with her landlord to allow her to pay a portion of this month’s rent next month after she receives her tax return–and to pay the next several months in advance. Rachel has really worked hard to change the way she looks at her financial situation and to gain control of it herself, setting herself up for future stability.

At Bridges of Hope, part of our mission is to strengthen, stabilize and support families. We regard building financial literacy among the families we serve as one of the most important things we can do to “help.” Each day we do our best to both provide the resources that will keep a family’s current crisis from becoming a catastrophe, and to provide the kind of education and support that will prevent a future crisis from even happening in the first place. When a family like Rachel’s really works hard to overcome their short-term crisis and set themselves up for future success, they in turn become the living proof for us that real, lasting change is truly possible for families.

Andrew’s Moment

Andrew, a single father, had been unemployed for about four months, and the utility bills had begun to pile up. He connected with Bridges of Hope after his church had assisted him several times with food and his rent. The social ministry worker at Andrew’s church made the first phone call to Bridges, concerned that they would no longer be able to support Andrew financially, and our staff explained our Financial Resources Program, recommending that Andrew call right away.

Church SteepleWe also talked with the social ministry worker about how Bridges was created to assist churches when someone contacts them with  a financial crisis, since Bridges of Hope specializes in knowing about all of the local community resources and how to access them. They were relieved to learn that churches can refer both parishoners and non-parishioners to Bridges of Hope, since our role in the community is to assist with exactly these kinds of scenarios. Churches can even stay connected with Bridges about the outcome of the situation (if we have obtained a Release of Information from the person to share their information).

Andrew called that same day, and during his initial conversation with our staff, he indicated he was also out of food for his 8-year-old son’s beloved cat. We connected Andrew to an animal Food Shelf that provided him with a small supply of pet food while we worked with Andrew on his other concerns.

During that first conversation, the Bridges of Hope staff quickly realized there were a few complex pieces to Andrew’s financial puzzle, so she scheduled a meeting to sit down with Andrew and thoroughly explore his current financial situation. In particular, Andrew disclosed that a disability was causing a major barrier to his re-employment. Because he was under 200% of the federal poverty guideline, Andrew was eligible for several assistance programs, but both he and his church had been unaware of their existence prior to connecting with Bridges of Hope.

After that, we helped Andrew connect with Lutheran Social Service‘s Energy Assistance program for help with his utility bills and with County Income Maintenance for food support. We also helped Andrew access the Salvation Army food shelf and AngelFood Ministries for additional food resources while his applications were processing and connected him with the Disability Linkage Line for further support with his ongoing barrier to employment.

It was clear that it might take Andrew some time before he was able to return to work, so the Bridges staff recommended that Andrew look at moving to a lower-cost apartment, which would allow him to pay for all of his household needs on an ongoing basis. Andrew was provided with information about subsidized housing and was connected to the key person who could expedite his application, given some of the specific circumstances of Andrew’s situation.

Since then, Andrew has moved into a subsidized apartment with his son and has been able to maintain his bills. During a follow-up call to see how things were going, Andrew stated, “I can’t thank you enough. I felt like I was going nowhere with no real solutions. But you knew exactly what I needed and connected me to the right people. I’m going to pray tonight that God blesses you!”

If you or someone you know is struggling financially, contact Bridges of Hope for assistance finding and navigating the resources in the Lakes Area. If you are a local church wondering about how you and Bridges can work together to better serve families in our community, contact Jana Shogren, our Executive Director at 218.825.7682.

————————–

Photo by Bill Longshaw