In the 1970s, Lumbee River Electric Membership Corporation was one of North Carolina’s most progressive co-ops, both technologically and in its sensitivity to the struggles of the distribution system’s many low-income consumers.
Setting the tone was General Manager Derl Hinson, a soft-spoken man who didn’t want Lumbee River EMC to be in the business of disconnecting low-income members for nonpayment.
After learning that an elderly widow on the co-op’s lines was forced to choose between paying her electric bill and paying for a taxi to take her to and from her doctor’s office and the grocery store, he got on the phone and arranged for a local social services agency to transport her.
But Hinson had an electric utility to run, so he made Genevieve Edens, a 28-year employee, his social services coordinator. The job description was a first among the state’s 41 electric co-ops, and it meant that any Lumbee River EMC member that was truly needy had a place to turn to for help.
At the time, Lumbee River EMC served more than 17,800 consumer-members in four eastern North Carolina counties: Robeson, Hoke, Scotland and Cumberland. With more than 20 percent of this population living below the poverty line and a per capita income of less than 70 percent of the national average, Robeson was one of the poorest counties in the state and the nation.
The co-op started focusing on its members’ money problems in the winter 1976, one of the coldest on record. High heating costs, an increase in the power cost adjustment, and the implementation of a new meter-reading regimen combined to stretch household budgets to the breaking point.
“It hit them on December 20, right before Christmas,” recalled Member Services Director John O’Briant. “We almost had an uprising.”
Hinson invited all the social services agencies in the four counties for a luncheon meeting at the co-op’s headquarters in Red Springs, N.C., and told them Lumbee River EMC wanted to work with them, that it understood the negative effect of a high electricity bill on a poor household.
“If a co-op member has a legitimate need—medical, food, clothing, housing, transportation, fuel, school—we’re going to do whatever we can toward seeing that need is met,” Edens said in June of 1979.
At the time, Edens was working with a family of six. The father couldn’t work because he was disabled. The mother had no marketable skills. And their electric bill was past due.
Edens, after making a few calls, got the Robeson County Church and Community Center (Methodist) involved in providing medical assistance for the father. The Lumbee Regional Development Association provided day care for the children. The North Carolina Council on the Status of Women enrolled the mother in a job-training program.
After 28 years on the co-op’s staff, Edens knew hundreds of members by their first name. And her colleagues pointed out that she brought something extra to the job of social services coordinator: she took their troubles to heart.