KNOX, Maine — Earlier this winter, Knox resident Tanya Hubbard was waiting in line at a local pharmacy and overheard a conversation that she couldn’t easily forget. An elderly woman asked the pharmacist to cut her pills in half in a matter-of-fact way.
“She said she’s cut back on her meals and her pills, and if she could turn her heat down, she might make it through the winter,” the longtime Mount View High School English teacher said Monday.
The elderly woman’s words, and news reports about major cuts to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, galvanized Hubbard, 58, into action. After 37 years of teaching, she knows western Waldo County and its residents quite well. She understands that many people there have a lot of economic needs.
“We have a nice home and we’re very warm. There are people outside who are cold. I said, this is just foolish,” Hubbard recalled. “People need to start paying it forward.”
The way Hubbard saw it, that payment could involve giving a little help to people who are struggling with heating their homes this winter. A month ago, she began a fundraising campaign with that goal in mind, which at that time she called the “5 for 5 campaign.” She intended to raise $5,000 to help out five needy families. So far, she has raised $5,751 from more than 100 people from throughout the state of Maine and even beyond.
The money has helped nine families to date, with enough funds to help two more in the pipeline, Hubbard said. She would like to keep the project going through the winter, if possible.
“Isn’t that amazing?” she asked, exuberance alight in her voice. “I’m so excited about it. I never really expected this to get really big.”
Although the money raised has exceeded her expectations, the effort is homespun and far from sophisticated. Every day, Hubbard heads down to her mailbox to see what has arrived.
“Going to my mailbox is the most amazing part of my day. When the mail comes in, I clutch it to my chest,” she said.
When checks arrive — as they have in denominations ranging from $5 from one woman to $500 from a man who works at a local oil company — they’re written out to her. She said she is amazed at the trust involved, which she takes seriously. Hubbard and her husband, Jim Bartels, cash the checks and then she delivers the money to the oil suppliers of people she knows are having hard times. On Monday, she made a $500 gift to the account of a local woman.
“This is really fun. This is as close to Oprah as I’ll get,” she said.
Dave Thompson, the owner of Thompson’s Oil in Waldo, who had Hubbard as a high school teacher years ago, said her efforts are important.
“Every dollar that she can give to these folks is really quite a help, because people are having a difficult time this year paying for their oil,” he said.
The gifts are made anonymously, although Hubbard does send recipients a card that states “Please stay warm this winter. Your friends care about you.”
One woman who received some help with her heating bills through the project sent Hubbard $25, so that she herself could pay it forward.
“It’s just so life-affirming,” Hubbard said. “People are good. People are really good.”
The names of the people who need help are chosen by the teacher and a couple other people who know the county and its residents. Three people have called to request help, which is hard for proud Mainers to do, Hubbard said.
Her high school students want in on some of the action, too. She has renamed the project “Warm Waldo,” and students in a community service group will be helping to raise money. In one day, her senior English students shook out $75, in the form of loose change, a crumpled $10 bill and even some checks, to add to the cause. On Friday, students will start paying $5 to purchase a paper mitten with their name written on it to be displayed at the school.
“They’re so good. They’re really considerate,” she said of her students.
All this paying it forward is not an abstract concept for Hubbard. Far from it. In the last 12 years, she has had four serious health problems, including two bouts with cancer. Through all that, the community reached out to help her.
“Waldo County is my home. It’s been so good to me. People here don’t have a lot, and throughout my illnesses, I’ve been given so much,” she said. “It’s a good life. I’m lucky to be alive.”
To help with the Warm Waldo heating oil assistance campaign, checks can be written to Tanya Hubbard and sent to 54 Aborn Hill Road, Knox 04986.