BANGOR, Maine — For Pat LaMarche, spending this week living in — and broadcasting from — a Hobbit Hole outdoors is far more than a publicity stunt.
It’s about helping to meet the needs of some of Maine’s most vulnerable people, the poor, disabled and elderly and others who can’t afford to heat their homes.
The project is part of the “Help Keep ME Warm This Winter” campaign sponsored by Bangor radio stations WZON 620 AM, WKIT 100.3 FM and The Pulse 103.1 FM. LaMarche, host of The Pulse “Morning Show,” has been spending the week — including Thanksgiving and Black Friday — in a small wood house loaned by Wooden Wonders of Unity.
Her goal is to raise $70,000 to match dollar-for-dollar the up to $70,000 pledged by the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation earlier this month. The Kings, who own the three radio stations, made the pledge after learning about deep cuts to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, better known as LIHEAP.
Mainers struggling to stay warm used to be able to count on help from the federal government. For many, however, that won’t be the case this winter.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notified MaineHousing late last month that it should expect to receive $23 million in LIHEAP funds this winter, down from $55.6 million last year. Gov. Paul LePage said earlier this month he would ask the Legislature for funds to bridge the gap.
“We’ll match up to $70,000 of the amount raised,” King said in a telephone interview earlier this month. “This economy is terrible and Tabitha and I both worry so much about Bangor because it truly is a working-class town and we are always looking for ways to help, and right now this is a great need.”
LaMarche blames the LIHEAP program cuts to misplaced priorities on the part of the nation’s leadership.
“We can’t tax the top 1 percent but we can take heat away from the little old lady who weighs 104 pounds? Are you kidding me?” she said Thursday, her eyes alternately flashing in anger and welling up with tears.
As of midafternoon, the total raised stood at slightly more than $12,500. Though disappointed, LaMarche said she understands.
“I think the community has struggled to help,” she said during an interview inside the Hobbit Hole on Thanksgiving Day. “The community has stretched itself to get turkeys when [local charities and broadcasters] were doing their thing. They stretched themselves again to come up with canned goods [for various food drives]. Now they’re giving money for oil.”
Still, she said scores of people dropped by during the week to give what they could, including a children with change they had collected. The largest donation was a check for $1,000.
“It’s $30 million in cuts,” she said of the anticipated LIHEAP loss. “Even if we had raised $70,000 [to match the $70,000 King pledged — that’s still only $140,000,” which she said would cover the cost of about 38,000 gallon of oil at the current price of $3.65 a gallon.
Though lacking in many of the comforts of home, the Hobbit Hole LaMarche has been living in — and broadcasting from — since early Monday morning appeared rather cozy on Thursday afternoon.
Roughly twice the size of a typical garden storage shed, the wooden structure looks more like a small camp. It has a round front door, four round windows as well as front steps, a wooden floor and a regular backdoor. The interior still smells strongly of fresh wood.
Because she is calling the Hobbit Hole home for a week, LaMarche has added some homey touches such as a recliner, an electric space heater, a small table topped with a green and white checked tablecloth that belonged to her late mother, a dogeared paperback copy of JRR Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” and a framed print reading “Hole Sweet Hole” made and dropped off by one of her fans.
Though LaMarche had planned to sleep in the recliner, she switched to a folding cot.
“It doesn’t have a lock like a La-Z-Boy so every time I rolled over it threw me out, kind of like an ejector seat,” she said with a laugh.
And while LaMarche did not get to spend Thanksgiving with her loved ones, she didn’t go without a traditional holiday meal. Kev-Lan Coffee Shop & Banquet Facilities made up several take-out boxes containing turkey and all the fixings, including pecan pie, that were dropped off around 3 p.m.
Though LaMarche is moving out of the Hobbit Hole on Friday, donations are still being accepted, she said.
Contributions can be made in cash, by check or by using a Visa or MasterCard. Call the stations at 990-2800 to donate by credit card, mail checks made out to Help Keep ME Warm to ZONE Radio, 861 Broadway, Bangor 04401, or make a donation in person at the same address.