EAST PROVIDENCE — On a brisk January morning, wind coming in off Narragansett Bay whips down the street of the Riverside neighborhood, chilling anyone who ventures outside. Inside, however, homeowners Augustin and Colleen Busschaert are able to enjoy their Saturday morning in the warmth and coziness of their home, something they can attribute partially to “Keep the Heat On,” the diocesan heating assistance program.
“Every little bit helps,” said Augustin, sitting at his kitchen table while four-year-old daughter Lorelei played nearby.
In November, Augustin and Colleen were the recipients of a donation of heating oil from “Keep the Heat On,” a diocesan program founded in 2005 to provide heating assistance to families and individuals who have exhausted all other forms of public and private assistance. During the past 11 years, the program has helped nearly 10,000 families to heat their homes through the cold winter months.
The Busschaert family, who attend St. Brendan’s Parish, Riverside, has struggled over the past few years keep their home warm through the winter months. Last year’s storms hit them particularly hard, adding worries about the cost of heating oil to the already immense problem of removing snow from the sidewalks and driveway around their corner home. Like many New England families, the Busschaerts found themselves calling the oil company again and again as frigid temperatures and one snowstorm after another depleted their home’s heating oil reserves.
“We were filling up every two weeks come January,” said Colleen.
Despite milder temperatures and a busy work schedule, the family has continued to face difficulty meeting the cost of heating their home this winter season. Augustin, who has a degree in meteorology from Oswego State University in New York, works three days per week as a weather observer at T. F. Green Airport. On Wednesdays and Thursdays he commutes to Bradley Airport in Connecticut, and he works a third job as a custodian at St. Brendan’s Parish. Colleen, a stay-at-home mom, raises the couple’s three children, including 17-month-old James and teenage son John.
The couple purchased their Riverside home in 2010, and said they were immediately struck by the difficulty of paying to heat an entire house, as compared with the apartments and condominiums they had lived in previously.
“I never had to pay for a full tank of oil before,” said Augustin. “I was used to getting my heating bill as part of my electric.”
For a few years, they participated in a heating assistance program through East Bay Community Action. This past fall, however, they were told they would no longer qualify for assistance, despite making less than they had in previous years. The couple began looking at other options to help them prepare for the upcoming winter and discovered “Keep the Heat On.” They applied for the diocesan heating program in November and almost immediately received a shipment of 50 gallons of heating oil.
“It was a really swift, easy process,” said Augustin. “I didn’t feel like I was going through a bureaucracy.”
Though Augustin and Colleen are constantly looking for ways to be efficient about their use of heat, conserving energy is difficult in their older home. Like many built in the Northeast, the house depends on a less-than-efficient oil heating system and can become drafty in the cold winter weather.
“This house is kind of a monster, especially with these systems,” said Colleen, gesturing to the old-fashioned radiator on the living room wall. “I don’t know how anybody can afford to do oil. We’re trying to convert to gas.”
Colleen’s father is helping the couple to convert their house to a natural gas heating system, a change they anticipate will bring costs down considerably. However, the conversion won’t be complete until at least the upcoming spring, leaving the family to depend on oil heat through the rest of the winter.
Colleen and Augustin are hoping for a mild winter without last year’s February storms, but, given the recent volatile weather patterns, it is difficult to envision how much the family will be using their heating system over the next few months. Even Augustin, who has plenty of experience watching the weather, said he can’t predict what the rest of the season holds in store.
“It’s too bad it’s not a consistent thing,” he said.