Home Waynesboro’s HERO: Nonprofit aims to help prevent utility cutoffs, evictions
Economy, Local

Waynesboro’s HERO: Nonprofit aims to help prevent utility cutoffs, evictions

Crystal Graham
hands sorting past due bills on kitchen table
(© LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS – stock.adobe.com)

For someone struggling to make ends meet due to an unforeseen expense, finding an organization that may be able to help them and finding the time to reach out can be difficult.

It can mean calling dozens of churches or friends and family and asking for help – having to explain your situation over and over again.

Even when you find an organization or church who might be able to help, it can be challenging to deal with childcare or transportation or time off work to meet with the organization and fill out paperwork in person for financial assistance.

Housing Emergency Relief Organization, or HERO, a new organization in Waynesboro, is working to streamline the process by giving residents an online form to fill out to request up to $300 in assistance for anyone facing utility cutoff or eviction and allowing those in need to submit documents electronically eliminating some of the headaches that may be a burden.

The goal is to also free up church staff members from fielding assistance calls as they can now refer those in need to HERO for help.

HERO Board President Sarah Mendonca and Board Treasurer Janeice Raiche met with AFP after a working lunch on Thursday at Panera Bread in Waynesboro.

The organization has already reviewed about two dozen applications and provided relief to about half of those who applied.

Mendonca said each applicant is vetted to make sure they meet the criteria (i.e. Waynesboro resident facing utility cutoff or eviction) and to make sure there isn’t overlap ( i.e. more than one organization providing assistance), so that the funds that the community does have are spread out to help as many people as possible.

HERO isn’t reinventing the wheel.

A similar organization, the Staunton Augusta Church Relief Association, or SACRA, provides similar emergency assistance to residents of Staunton and Augusta County. If someone from Waynesboro applies to SACRA, they aren’t eligible.

Mendonca and Raiche said they felt a calling to do something to help people in Waynesboro.

“We started talking about this saying, you know, what are we going to do about this?” Mendonca said. “After exploring different options, we came to the conclusion that we needed to form a parallel organization in Waynesboro.”

St. John the Evangelist Church, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Grace Lutheran Church, First Baptist Church and Westminster Presbyterian Church have combined efforts with HERO – providing financial assistance and having a church representative serve on its board. It is the goal of the organization to have more Waynesboro churches join the effort so the organization can help more people.

HERO’s nonprofit status is still pending, but the organization didn’t want to wait to help people in need. The Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge stepped in to serve as the fiduciary for the organization until their status is approved.

“You don’t have to get out of work to make an appointment. Or if you don’t have a car, you don’t have to worry about transportation,” said Mendonca. “We’re able to respond pretty quickly to things.”

Unlike a GoFundMe or giving someone a check, HERO pays the utility company or landlord directly.

“We’re really trying to prevent homelessness, essentially, by helping people. We’re really hoping to help people who are on a really tight budget, and they had some unexpected expenses, and normally they have adequate income, but you know, something happened, and they need a little bit of help,” said Mendonca. “That’s what we’re here for.”

The organization is relying on other organizations who work with families who may be in crisis: LifeWorks, The Salvation Army, Embrace, CAPSAW, etc., to share with those in need that there may be help available through HERO.

“People are literally losing their homes, and I think we felt a calling, and now that we’re hearing the stories, I think that calling is 10 times stronger,” said Mendonca. “There are so many myths about people who need help. You see these are people who are working, and they’re not lazy people who just have their hand out. They’re good people who just hit a big bump in the road.”

Raiche is retired and sees her contribution as “faith in action.”

“I always said that when I was retired, this is what I would do. I’ve been volunteering in one way or another ever since I retired.”

Both said the people who have received funds so far have been extremely grateful.

“For the people donating to us, you know, $300 may not seem like a lot,” Mendonca said. “But it is a huge game-changer for a lot of people. It feels heaven-sent. It feels great to be able to give them a little hope when life is beating them down, and be able to say, ‘we see what you are going through.’”

The organization’s limits right now are mostly due to the amount of funds they have to disperse.

The Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge, which has been at the forefront of the housing insecurity issue, has also stepped in and offered to match the first $15,000 that HOPE raises.

“We would love to be able to do more for a lot of people,” Mendonca said. “Right now, we have to be aware that we have limits.”

Reaching out to HERO

To donate by check, make payable to CFCBR and write HERO on the memo line. Checks may be mailed to HERO, PO Box 484, Waynesboro, VA 22980.

If you live in Staunton or Augusta County, reach out to Staunton Augusta Church Relief Association.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.