Not long after she started working as a member services representative for Flint Energies in Reynolds, Ga., in September 2009, Belinda Russell spotted what she thought was an unmet need.
Many of the co-op’s elderly and low-income members were struggling to pay their bills, Russell remembers, and she thought both they and the co-op could benefit from some coordinated help.
“The members that were in the most need were having problems getting help,” she says. “I felt Flint needed someone to act as a liaison between the members in need and agencies in the community that could possibly help. Just getting our payments on time from every member should not be our only goal and purpose. We are meant to improve the quality of life for our members in any way we can.”
Russell persuaded the co-op to create an energy assistance counselor position and promptly applied for the job. But it didn’t take her long to see that she too would need some help to do the job right.
One of the first calls she took after setting up her new office in February 2011 came from a “sweet lady” who told Russell she was in a “financial storm,” triggered in part by an electric bill of only $30.
“At first glance, this seems crazy,” Russell says. “But she was a senior citizen living on a very small check and was having to choose between food and electricity. It was then that I realized that in order to help our members with their electric bill, I would need information on other resources in the community as well. As a result of her call, I began to network and have found resources in our community for members needing help with food, housing, and medication.”
Now, after less than five years of compassionate service and furious networking, Russell has turned Flint Energies’ energy assistance counseling into a key component of the social safety net in the 17 central-Georgia counties the co-op serves.
She knows, for instance, about all 15 food banks in Houston County and can tell needy members where those community pantries are, when they’re open, and the names of the volunteers who staff them. She works closely with numerous church-based benevolent organizations throughout the co-op’s service territory and has solid relationships with community and government social-service agencies, as well.
Some of those private agencies receive financial assistance from the Operation Round Up program Flint Energies has run since 2001, according to Marian McLemore, the co-op’s manager of public relations. But that program doesn’t provide direct assistance to individuals.
That’s where Russell’s work comes in. In 2014, she helped more than 1,200 co-op members in need, tapping nearly 50 agencies, groups, and churches to keep those members financially afloat.
Along the way, Russell herself has become a resource for those groups.
“Churches want to use their benevolence funds to help the needy in their community,” she says. “But they struggle with the ‘who’ and ‘how much’ questions every day. I now have churches that call and say they have funds available, and they trust me to recommend members they may be able to assist.”
And sometimes, it’s even more personal. “I have had members contact me to offer help as well,” Russell says. “About two months ago, I had a woman come in to ask if she could help. She had $1,000 that she wanted to donate. I was able to help several members with her donation that I couldn’t have helped otherwise. I also have helped members who later called back to help others once they got back on their feet.
“I love getting these calls,” she continues. “It reaffirms my belief that I am right where I am meant to be.”
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Russell finds out about members in need in a variety of ways.
“Most of the members I deal with are referred to me by other employees who come in contact with them and recognize the need, or referrals from other agencies that I work with,” Russell says. “Flint also allows me the opportunity to attend community events and to speak to organizations, and I do reach members while out in the community.”
One of the ways she helps folks get back on their feet is with the Pay Your Way prepayment program Flint Energies recently launched. One story that’s been circulating at the co-op tells of a single mother whose power was cut off as she tried to cope with mounting debt. Finally, the woman connected with Russell, who signed her up for Pay Your Way and mustered other support from her network of service organizations.
“Not only did this member get all her debts paid off, she paid the final installment early and took to Facebook to tell all her friends about how the great people at Flint got her back on her feet,” recalls Jimmy Autry, Flint’s senior vice president of member & community relations.
Russell believes those benefits keep building.
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“The results of this position have been amazing,” she says. “I have developed wonderful working relations with many of the agencies and churches in our service area. Flint has received very positive results in both their willingness to offer this position and the amount of people we have been able to help. I cannot always help a member, but even when that occurs, I get many ‘thank-yous’ just because Flint cared enough to try.
“When Flint created this job, we had no idea where it would go or if we would make a difference. I can say beyond doubt we are impacting our community.”
And the impacts flow right back to her, Russell adds.
“I count myself truly blessed to be in this position,” she says. “I have seen the impact this has had on our members and am thankful I have the support of our management to be allowed the time and energy needed to do this. I have received much more from our members than I have ever given. I love being able to make a difference in a member’s life.”