Ten years ago, Arlene Carroll of Alfred had an idea that residents might donate their returnable bottles to a fund to help Alfred residents faced with a winter fuel emergency. A decade later, Fueling February is still going strong. TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune

ALFRED — Every thrifty Mainer knows the value of a nickel. They know it takes 20 of them to make one dollar — and dollars can add up.

Over the last 10 years, residents of Alfred, a community of about 3,000 people, have been donating their nickels — in the form of returnable bottles and cans — to help their neighbors through heating emergencies in the winter. During those 10 years, Fueling February has raised $92,000. With the exception of a $10,000 bequest and some annual $100 donations, all of the money has come from returnables people drop into a special trailer at the Alfred Transfer Station or in a shed beside the Alfred Parish Church, said Arlene Carroll, who came up with the idea a decade ago.

A decade ago, Carroll started brainstorming after a single mother she knew had an emergency that meant there was no money for fuel in the dead of a Maine winter. Carroll said her family alone wasn’t in a position to help — it was the year that heating oil was approaching $5 a gallon — but two other families pitched in as well, and the single mom was able to get fuel.

And so premise of “many hands” took root. Carroll, knowing people don’t always like to deal with getting rid of returnable bottles, thought some resident might donate them for a good cause — and they do, in vast numbers.

“I wondered if three (families) could help, what if a whole town could get together to help each other,” she said. “My thought was, you live payday to payday, and sometimes all it takes is a child being sick,” to throw a budget into a tailspin.

She approached Alfred Parish Church and as the program expanded, spoke to John Sylvester who was one Alfred’s three selectmen at the time. The Board of Selectmen agreed that Alfred would hold the funds for the program, which would be administered by the town’s General Assistance director — as it still is today.

The current Board of Selectmen Chairman Tony Palminteri described the program as “wonderful.”

“It illustrates the generosity of Alfred people,” he said.

Fueling February is a true emergency fund, Carroll said. Eligibility is determined through income — which was raised by $500 this year so more people would be eligible.

According to Alfred General Assistance Director Donna Pirone, a family of one person could qualify if their income is less than $2,673 a month; the income limit for a family of five is $4,713, according to the policy, with varying income levels in between for other family sizes. A fueling emergency is defined as having a quarter of a tank or less of fuel and no means to purchase any, Pirone said. People may receive a total of 300 gallons, in 150 gallon increments, six weeks apart, but must apply each time they request emergency assistance.

The program includes fuels ranging from oil to wood to propane to pellets and more.

Last heating season, 17 Alfred families received assistance. Pirone estimated that about 20 families are helped annually. So far, three families have applied for the season that began Nov. 1, and two of them were completely out of fuel, she said.

A number of other local communities, like Sanford and Kennebunk, have fuel emergency funds — usually the money comes through private donations.

Carroll said that on this 10th anniversary, the Fueling February committee is trying to spread the word, so more Alfred families who find themselves without heating fuel can get the help that’s available — thanks to all those nickels from returnable bottles that people have donated over time.

“Getting people to come in is the hardest part” of the program, said Pirone. “We all need to stay warm.”

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 780-9016 or [email protected]

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