Few people would think of Lyme as a town that struggles with poverty. So a recent notice posted on the town's web site urgently requesting donations for Lyme's Emergency Assistance Fund to meet an increasing number of requests for aid seemed surprising.
"It's true there is a huge amount of money in this town but there are people in need and you don’t know it. They're your neighbors and they don’t really know where to go for help," said Lyme's Social Services Coordinator Kathy Tisdale. "I’m getting more and more phone calls. Usually it's a young mother, a single mother, an older person, or someone who’s lost their job. A lot of them are middle class people who don’t have anything left at the end of the month and, because they make too much money, they don’t qualify for the federal and state aid."
Fixed Incomes, Rising Costs
In 2000, U.S. Census data showed that none of the town's 613 families were living at the poverty level. And though the economy has changed since then, very few people in Lyme fall below the poverty level today. Of course, the poverty level for 2012 sets the bar very low: A family of two can make little more than $15,000; a family of four, $23,000.
Tisdale often refers people in need to the Thames Valley Council for Community Action, a private nonprofit social services agency in Southeastern Connecticut that offers assistance with heat and energy, groceries, meals on wheels, child care, medical bills, and the like. But again, to be eligible for assistance people must have very low incomes.
In Lyme, most people own property and aren't poor enough to receive aid but people on fixed incomes often struggle to cover the rising costs of fuel, groceries, and prescriptions. Those are the people that Lyme's Emergency Assistance Fund is designed to help with a one-time only donation.
"We call it a hand up, not a hand out, just to get over that hurdle," said Tisdale.
Lyme's Always Depended on the Kindness of Strangers
Unlike most, larger municipalities, Lyme's Emergency Assistance Fund is not paid for by tax dollars as a line item in the town's budget. Instead, it depends entirely on donations to fill the coffers.
"We don’t have a social services budget," said Tisdale, whose own position as the town's Social Services coordinator is only part time. "We rely solely on the kindness of organizations and private citizens."
The fund can be used to cover any emergency expense, from helping a family after a fire to paying an electric bill. A few days ago, Tisdale dipped into it to buy personal hygiene products and laundry detergent for an elderly woman who called to ask if she could exchange food stamps for cash so she could buy soap.
It's illegal to exchange Food Stamps for cash and they can't be used to purchase anything but food. But few people would consider soap or toothpaste to be optional luxury items. Tisdale is planning to hold a sundries drive soon to help those in need and will be asking for donations of personal hygiene products, cleaning supplies, and diapers.
Growing Demand, Dwindling Donations
Tisdale said she tapped into the fund to help about 15 to 18 families with a one-time donation last year. That may not seem like a huge number but as the town's population hovers around 2,000, it's not insignificant. It's also worth noting that most of the assistance went to fill tanks with heating oil—and last winter was uncommonly mild.
Tisdale is anticipating demand being even greater this year, particularly as the federal government has cut the amount it provides in energy assistance to individuals by about 25 percent and heating oil prices are expected to rise.
"I’ve gotten three phone calls today from people trying to find out where they can go for oil assistance," said Tisdale yesterday. "If it’s a long, bad winter, they’re really in trouble."
Unless the town receives more donations to beef up the emergency fund, however, some may find themselves out in the cold.
"We're in dire straits," said Tisdale. "There's some money in the account but not a lot. It's dwindled. I don’t want to have to say no to anyone but if there’s no money, there's no money. A couple more oil deliveries and we’re all done."
Where To Go If You Need Help With Heat
Applications for fuel assistance will be taken on Tuesday, October 16 at the Lymes’ Senior Center from 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. For more information, call Kathy Tisdale at (860) 434-1920.
How You Can Help
If you'd like to help your neighbors in need, please send donations to Kathy Tisdale at the Lyme Town Hall, 480 Hamburg Rd., Lyme, CT 06371. Checks should be made payable to the Emergency Assistance Fund.