SEARSMONT, Maine — One wheelbarrow at a time, a group of Waldo County residents is doing what it can to help struggling neighbors keep warm.
For the past three years, Waldo County Woodshed has grown in an effort to keep up with demand from people across the area who can’t afford to heat their homes during the toughest stretch of the year.
“It’s become obvious the need is there, but we don’t know where the ceiling is,” founder Bob MacGregor said Saturday.
Today, Waldo County Woodshed operates eight distribution sites across the county, which volunteers open up to provide wood to anyone who needs it, but they ask that people call ahead to say they’ll be coming.
As of the end of January, the group has given out an estimated 88 cords of wood, up from 53 the previous winter and just 20 the winter before that. So far this year, there have been 99 different recipients.
A cord, the typical measurement for wood volume, is 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet long. A cord of wood can weigh about 2 tons and costs about $250, meaning the group has distributed 176 tons of wood worth about $22,000 this year.
Every weekend, volunteers spend a few hours helping recipients who have signed up over the course of the week to load up their vehicles with firewood.
On Saturday, the busiest day so far this season, about two dozen people came to the Searsmont woodshed, based in the town industrial park, to stock up. Some brought trucks and SUVs to take home enough wood to get them through a couple more weeks. One woman filled every inch of spare space in her Ford Focus sedan.
“We see some of these people every week,” MacGregor said. “We set it up as an emergency operation, but it’s become more important than that.”
Cassandra Lucas, 25, of Liberty is one of the people that’s come to rely on the help. Her only heat source is a wood stove, and weekly trips to the woodshed help her make it through winter as a single mom who’s out of work.
“They’ve helped me out a lot,” Lucas said as she loaded her Toyota RAV4. “I haven’t frozen, and what they do is a huge relief for someone on low income like me.”
An estimated 25 percent of Waldo County homes use either wood or wood pellets as a primary heat source, and about 16 percent of Waldo County residents live below the federal poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The group is always looking for donations and volunteers. The shed is running low, with about 10 cords at its main location in Searsmont. It may be empty by the end of the month, and would need more seasoned firewood to continue operating through winter.
In the spring, the group resupplies, buying wood from area loggers and stacking any green wood donations to dry for the coming season.
Any monetary donations go toward wood purchases, MacGregor said. The group also accepts volunteer help making emergency deliveries to recipients in the area who can’t make it to one of the distribution sites, or helping to move, load and cut wood at distribution sites.
For information about the Waldo County Woodshed, visit waldocountywoodshed.org or call 338-2692.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.