BANGOR - The low point in Kimberly Henderson's struggle to keep her family warm came in early January when she was too broke to order an oil delivery and had to buy a 5-gallon container to take to her dealer to get enough fuel to make it through the night.
But later that month, with the gauge on her 275-gallon tank again approaching empty, Henderson's fortunes turned around when she got a phone call from a local clergyman: He just received a donation that would provide her with 50 gallons of heating fuel.
"I could have cried," said Henderson, a 40-year-old single mother of three who lives in a rental home in downtown Bangor. Like many in Maine, she has been hit hard by heating oil prices that have soared to an all-time high of $3.35 a gallon, about $1 a year ago.
While many get help from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the average benefit of $750 isn't enough to fill the standard oil tank at today's prices. That's why volunteer efforts like the Rev. Gerald Oleson's Sunny Corner Fuel Assistance have sprung up to provide emergency help to those who fall through the cracks.
Maine, where four out of five households heat with oil, is making an unprecedented push to raise private money this winter to help the tens of the thousands who walk a financial tightrope in order to balance heating expenses with the costs of other necessities. Stepped-up efforts are also under way elsewhere in New England. The nonprofit Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance, which draws from public and private sources, expects to extend $320,000 in assistance this winter through its Oil Bank program. That's up from $128,000 last winter.
In Maine, donations have ranged from $250,000 from outdoors outfitter L.L. Bean in Freeport to an anonymous fifth-grader's gift of her $5 weekly allowance.
The state has gotten into the act with its Operation Keep ME Warm, an initiative started five years ago by Governor John Baldacci that seeks private donations to help poor people pay fuel bills.
While Keep ME Warm brought in between $25,000 and $50,000 in past years, this winter's total has exceeded $1 million.
"The need is very acute this year and there's a real sensitivity to what's happening." said John Kerry, who heads the state energy office.
A number of towns have joined in, setting up voluntary donor programs or tapping local sources of funds. Another source of help has been Citizens Energy, the Boston-based nonprofit set up by Joseph Kennedy that channels fuel donated by Citgo, the Venezuelan-owned oil company.
Henderson, who is studying forensic criminology while caring for three high-needs teenagers and her disabled mother, admitted she was reluctant to seek help.
The 50 gallons from Oleson that arrived in early January set the stage for other help. Henderson got 100 gallons from Citizens Energy and was notified by the local agency that administers federal assistance that her application had been approved. "By the grace of God I haven't run out this year, but this is the first time I'm breathing easy about it," she said.