PROVIDENCE — Anyone who has experienced Rhode Island’s seasons can attest to the fact that winters can be unbearably cold and unpredictable. For years, the Diocese of Providence has been helping those in financial need keep their furnaces running against the chill of a New England winter. Since 2005, the Keep the Heat On campaign has been an important aspect of Bishop Thomas J. Tobin’s ministry to the state of Rhode Island. This year marks the 18th season of the program, as well as a milestone of more than $4 million in aid given to those in need.
Secretary James Jahnz of the Office of Catholic Charities and Social Ministry, has been a part of the program since its second year. He explained that it is intended as a last resort for those who find themselves in dire financial straits; those suffering from unexpected illnesses, financial setbacks or the elderly who live on fixed incomes, hit hard by economic downturns and rising heating costs. Whether Catholic, Christian or no religion at all, the only qualifier is a person’s need.
“Our basic requirement is that you’ve exhausted all other forms of assistance,” Jahnz told Rhode Island Catholic.
“Do you need heat this evening? That’s the real indicator,” he noted of the main criteria in order to request assistance from the program.
Even when daytime temperatures begin to warm with the approach of spring, evenings can still bring a terrible chill, he continued. The program can help cover heating costs “until the weather gets a little warmer.”
Heating costs can fluctuate dramatically based on the oil market, and some years the need for aid is greater, such as with the recession of 2008 and in the 2021-2022 heating season, when oil prices skyrocketed, leading to the highest level of need as well as assistance granted in the program’s history.
But the return is well worthwhile, as Jahnz pointed out, “We want to make sure that people’s homes are heated and the bishop wants to ensure that their hearts are warmed.”
“Gifts to Keep the Heat On are a true expression and example of God’s love and care,” Bishop Tobin said. “Donations have a concrete effect on the lives of our neighbors in need, and these donations not only heat their homes, but they also warm their hearts.”
The funding for Keep the Heat On comes from different sources. This year, Jahnz reported sizable donations from “community partners” such as the Rhode Island Energy Foundation, the Masse family at Paul Masse Chevrolet in East Providence, and Santoro Oil Company, among others. Local Catholic schools also contribute through fundraisers, putting the charity they learn in the classroom into action.
John Santoro, CEO/owner of the Santoro Family of Companies, including Santoro Oil, which made a $50,000 donation this year to Keep the Heat On. The provider has been in business since 1952.
“We want to always give back something to the community, and my understanding is that this money is going to assist people in helping them to pay their energy bills,” Santoro told Rhode Island Catholic on the scene of a recent delivery of heating oil.
“With the rapid rise in fuel prices this season, it made sense to contribute in that manner.”
Through the years, more than 17,000 households have benefitted from the program. Jahnz noted that many of those aided have called the program “lifesaving” and expressed gratitude toward Bishop Tobin for instituting it. These people’s stories often remain with Jahnz for years afterward.
John Lapinski has one such story. He had heard of programs like Keep the Heat On but had never believed he could qualify for aid. But on a recent day that he described as “freezing, freezing cold,” the pipes in his house began to freeze and he realized his heating oil tank was empty. With his wife currently not working, money has been tight, and a few gallons here and there was all he could afford to heat his home.
He saw an ad on television for Keep the Heat On and decided to try. All it took was a 15-minute phone call and help was literally on its way. After speaking to a diocesan representative, he called his oil company to see if they accepted the program and was told that they had just received a fax from the diocese. Expecting aid within a week or so, he was stunned when an oil truck pulled up at his house within half an hour, bringing 100 gallons of heating oil that he hopes will last until the weather warms up later in March.
“It was crazy, like something in a TV show,” Lapinski marveled. “It shocked me. The pipes were just starting to freeze; they literally came in and saved the day.”
Lapinski was so grateful to those who aided him that once the oil truck left, he sent an email to the diocese expressing his appreciation.
“God is always good to me, I’m very blessed,” he remarked. Though he had originally doubted that he would be able to receive assistance, he no longer questions the program. “It 100% works, I am super-grateful for it.”
Jahnz spoke of thousands more who, through the generosity of the Church, have not been forced to choose between paying for necessities like heating or food.
“The troubles people go through … for them to be able to turn to the Church, to be able to turn to a program like Keep the Heat On, it gives a lot of meaning to the work that we do,” he said proudly.