TRAVERSE CITY-- Keeping toasty and warm is expensive, but as winter arrives in northern Michigan it's also imperative.
Here, the stories of local individuals, groups and a business who are working to bring some warmth to those in need.
Dorothy Fistler got antsy within minutes of being an empty-nester. That was more than 16 years and 3,000 sleeping bags ago.
Fistler started a local chapter of Our Brother's Keeper, a tightly knit group of a dozen women who sew sleeping bags from scratch. Each bag is decorated, filled with toys and hygiene products, then donated to local charities, including the Salvation Army, the Women's Resource Center and the Goodwill Inn.
The group meets Wednesday mornings throughout the year at the Immanuel Baptist Church on McRae Hill Road, where they have a room devoted to sewing tables, machines and a closet stuffed full of batting.
The group runs solely on donations, from the filler for the bags to the toiletries tucked inside.
Ryan Hannon, Goodwill street outreach coordinator, said the bags can mean the difference between life and death.
"For some of them, it really is a life-saving thing. They're thankful to have something to keep them warm. People who are living in cars are very grateful," Hannon said.
"I've never seen the people who make them," he said. "The bags just appear."
Major Bruce Jennings, corps officer of the Traverse City Salvation Army, said the most recent donation of 20 sleeping bags was one of the most popular things at the toy shop before Christmas.
"The sleeping bags didn't last very long," he said. "They were one of the first things to go."
Fistler remembers a morning during her childhood in Detroit, when her dad went out to get the paper and could tell from the marks left in the snow that someone had slept on the family's porch.
"Dad was so upset," Fistler said. "He asked, 'Why didn't they ring the bell? I would have let him in. He didn't even have a blanket.'"
Fistler took that frustration, mixed with the ennui of her empty nest, and turned it into a local chapter of Flo Wheatley's faith-based charity, sometimes called The Sleeping Bag Project.
It was awkward at first, she admitted, because she'd "never begged." Asking got easier and now Fistler and her fellow helpers get toiletries from travelers as well as directly from the motels, old sheets and blankets for material, stuffed animals at garage sales and help from Fistler's son Scott, who fixes sewing machines at his shop, C&S Sewing, on South Airport Road, which also serves as a drop spot for donations.
Help with heat bills
The need for help paying the heat bills is huge.
Requests for assistance have gone up 40 percent over the last year or so, said Val Stone, community services coordinator for Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency.
"And, we are seeing families and individuals that we have never heard from before," she said.
The nonprofit agency distributes funds to help pay heating bills using federal, state and locally donated dollars. Eligibility requirements vary depending on the funding source, and the agency tries to coordinate its efforts with other local nonprofits who provide heat help.
Stone said a cold snap in early November meant people were using fuel earlier than they might have expected. The agency has about $365,000 in federal funds to help with heat costs, plus additional funding sources. But, it goes quickly, Stone said.
Money raised locally through events such as the agency's Gift of Warmth Gala can be used for more purposes, like fixing frozen pipes or repairing a furnace, Stone said. The fundraising gala will be held at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22, at the Park Place Hotel in Traverse City. Tickets to the event are $30 per person or $50 for two until Jan. 15. The agency is also seeking donations for a silent auction. For more information, visit the website www.nmcaa.net.
Those who need help heating their homes can call the agency at 947-3780. Stone said the agency is so busy with requests it has hired someone part-time to help with appointments and paperwork.
Leslie Roe knows how hard it is for families to save up the money needed to buy a new furnace.
She also knows how much money a new, and more efficient, furnace can save. That's one reason why the company she and her husband own choose a worthy nominee to give a furnace "makeover" to.
This is the fourth year Precision Plumbing & Heating Systems in Traverse City has held its furnace giveaway. Residents nominated 50 to 75 needy families this year, Roe said.
"We try to find people who are not maybe going to be helped by a government agency or a local support group," she said.
Roe said the response is overwhelming. Nomination letters include poignant details about the struggle of local families to juggle job losses, medical care bills and other necessities while dealing with an unsafe or unreliable furnace. The first family to receive a new furnace had a unit that "was rolling out flames," Roe said.
She expects the company will select this year's winner in the coming weeks and install the new furnace in early January.
Michelle Holcomb, of Traverse City, felt blessed when she received her furnace as part of the company's program.
"I knew that the furnace was old. It needed repair — a couple job losses and then the birth of my son kind of came along, and I realized that the furnace was clunking to even get started," she said. "I would lay awake at night, and I would hear the furnace kick on. I would hear it thump, thump, thump, and I would pray that it would make it."
There was no money in the family budget to replace the furnace, which she said was held together by duct tape.
"It's an expense that ... you'd love to be able to prepare for, but you are living paycheck to paycheck, anymore," she said.
Now, when her new heater kicks on she's filled with thanks and relief. And, her son's breathing and asthma problems have improved since the installation of a cleaner heating system, Holcomb said.
Record-Eagle features editor Jodee Taylor contributed to this story.