'Keep the Heat On' begins 15th season by helping survivors of domestic violence keep warm this winter

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PROVIDENCE — Bishop Thomas J. Tobin marked the kickoff of the diocesan “Keep the Heat On” campaign’s 15th season by presenting checks of $1,500 each to the five full member agencies of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence to assist survivors in paying their heating bills. More than a dozen executive directors and members of the five agencies — the Blackstone Valley Advocacy Center, Domestic Violence Resource Center of South County, Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center, Sojourner House and the Women’s Resource Center — were on hand Monday for the presentation at the diocesan chancery building of the $7,500 in total assistance. The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence is an organization dedicated to ending domestic violence and was formed in 1979 to support and assist the domestic violence agencies in Rhode Island.

“You’ve really become partners with the diocese in responding to this terrible plague of violence in our community and in our society,” Bishop said, praising the work of the members of the Coalition. “The Coalition does such great work in assisting victims of violence and in educating the community about how widespread the problem is and ways we can respond.”

Tonya Harris, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she is grateful to the Diocese of Providence for its commitment to providing assistance to all in need, including survivors of domestic violence.

“We’re so thankful to ‘Keep the Heat On’ for annually providing essential heating assistance to Rhode Islanders who sometimes may have no other way to heat their homes during the coldest winter months. It truly warms our hearts and souls,” Harris said. “This heating assistance support will aid some of the most poverty-stricken and violence affected families and children in our state and waiving requirements will ensure that are able to access this life-saving resource quickly and safely.”

Harris noted that the Coalition believes that individuals must begin to foster communities where tolerance, respect and love for one’s fellow human beings are at the center in order for domestic violence to be overcome.

“All people have the right to live their lives free from fear and violence, including the most oppressed and vulnerable,” Harris said. She then quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Whatever affects one directly affects all of us indirectly.”

Jim Jahnz, program supervisor for “Keep the Heat On,” said the diocesan initiative is a heating assistance program of last resort for those who have nowhere else to turn for help in keeping warm in the winter.

“There will be an expedited application process for clients of member agencies seeking heating assistance,” Jahnz said of a diocesan effort to streamline the process of making aid available to survivors of domestic violence.

The diocese’s decision to award heating assistance funds to survivors of domestic violence, and expedite access to aid for others throughout the upcoming season, compliments a new initiative begun this fall by the diocesan Office of Life and Family to offer counseling and support for men and women who are suffering in domestic violence situations. The new initiative, called “Pathway to Peace, Domestic Violence Outreach,” seeks to offer free counseling, emotional support and advice from a Catholic perspective, as well as resources and referrals to outside agencies and Catholic counselors as appropriate.

It is based on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1992 statement on domestic violence, “When I Call For Help,” the new diocesan program also provides information and support to people who know someone in need of help.

Members of the Coalition said that financial issues serve as a major barrier for survivors, as many survivors stay in abusive relationships as they are worried about covering basic needs like utilities in their homes over the winter months.

“It’s not uncommon for abusers to accumulate debt as a way of keeping survivors in the abusive relationship and also as a way of keeping them apart from having an independent life outside of abuse,” Harris said.

Celeste Jeffrey, director of Residential Services at Blackstone Valley Advocacy Center, has also seen from her work how hard it is for a survivor to break the cycle of abuse due to financial constraints that continue to tie them to their abuser.

“There are occasions where financially victims are preyed upon, and we can support them in ways that will correct problems that they have had with heating assistance or other issues. So we’re grateful to have these extra funds,” she said. Laurie Williams, the law enforcement advocate at the Women’s Resource Center — which, despite its name, serves all victims of domestic violence — works with five police departments in the East Bay. In her experience, she has seen that the hold abusers have over the victims can be multifaceted and could cost the survivor a great deal of money in order to break free of their bad situation.

“For women who are victims of domestic violence, 98 percent are financially abused,” Williams said. “With heating, oftentimes, we see the offenders, the abusers, have the utilities in their name, and when a victim feels empowered to leave a relationship, utilities are cut off. So it can be quite a struggle to get that utility or heating reconnected.”

Bishop Tobin said it was appropriate during this week’s feast of Thanksgiving to pause and give thanks and praise to God for all the blessings and gifts that he gives to us that sometimes we forget about and take for granted.

“One of the ways to give thanks is to give help to other people in need,” he said. “By sharing the gifts we have with other people we show the Lord that we are very grateful for the gifts that we ourselves have received.” “The “Keep the Heat On” program is one sign of our concern for other people, another sign of our gratitude to God for his goodness in our lives as well. It is also a great work of our diocesan Church. We’re very proud of our “Keep the Heat On” program and what it’s done throughout its first 14 years.”

This year, the Diocese of Providence is contributing $25,000 directly to this campaign, money that has come from the annual Catholic Charity Appeal. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more is donated by individuals, along with parishes, schools and other organizations which hold dress down days, bake sales, spaghetti dinners, concerts and countless other collections to help the less fortunate stay warm each year. The diocesan heating assistance program has raised $3.1 million since 2005 and offers a much-needed lifeline to more than 14,000 households, individuals and families.