NEW YORK – With a flip of a switch on a heating oil hose, thousands of gallons of fuel began pouring into the tank of Harlem co-op today, marking the fifth season of a partnership between Citizens Energy and CITGO Petroleum to provide 200,000 low-income households with much- needed heat.
The launch of the program at a tenant-owned cooperative followed a celebration at the nearby Riverside Church, where Citizens Energy founder Joseph P. Kennedy II and CITGO President Alejandro Granado addressed close to 1,000 program beneficiaries.
“Every year, we hear from families who struggle each and every day to put food on the table and heat their homes,” said Kennedy, a former member of the U.S. Congress. “The economic downturn has made the situation even worse. Parents have lost jobs. Families have lost health care along with their employment. More and more people are turning to programs like ours to keep their families warm.”
Kennedy’s Boston-based non-profit began providing heating assistance during the oil price shocks of the late 1970s. Starting in 2005, Citizens Energy expanded its operations in partnership with CITGO to 23 states and the District of Columbia. Kennedy said that he annually writes every major oil company and every OPEC nation to ask for fuel donations to help the poor but that only CITGO and Venezuela have ever agreed to provide assistance.
CITGO President Alejandro Granado noted the significance of holding the celebration at the Riverside Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War a year before his death.
“Today is a good day and this is a good place to launch our program,” said Granado. “It is the 81st birthday of Dr. King and CITGO is thus re-affirming its commitment to supporting low- income people and issues of social justice.”
Chyresse Lopez, whose Harlem co-op has received more than 1,400 gallons of oil over the past two years, described how the program has helped tenant-owners in their 17-unit building on 130th Street.
“The fact is our building is a low-income co-op. Our rents are low and don’t cover all our expenses,” said Lopez, who helped start the co-op in 1997 to preserve the building as affordable housing.
“Without the heating assistance from CITGO and Citizens Energy we would go under,” she said. “We would lose our homes and our building would become another expensive condo that we couldn’t afford. I’ve never been to Venezuela, but it means so much to know that their people care about us, living in our building, on the corner of a small block in Harlem.”
The heating oil program also provides fuel to thousands of Native American households in the U.S. spread out across 73 tribes and over 250 communities. In New York City, most of the beneficiaries are residents of large low-income cooperatives who own their units and receive heat via a central heating plant. In other states, beneficiaries own or rent their homes and receive deliveries from their own dealer.
Cheyenne River Sioux Chairman Joseph Brings Plenty stepped up to the podium to thank Citizens Energy, CITGO Petroleum and Venezuela for the assistance.
The program “has saved many Sioux and American Indian People from the bitter cold,” he said. The Lakota leader also invited Kennedy, Granado, and Alejandro to attend a powwow in South Dakota and sponsor cultural exchanges between the Sioux and the people of Venezuela.
The Venezuelan Ambassador pointed out that just as President Hugo Chavez and his government have worked to fight poverty in their homeland, they hope the program can help low-income families in the U.S. face the cold winters.
“We have had a binding historic relationship with the United States of America, a fraternal bond with its people and a vibrant commercial relationship with its consumers and the business sector,” said Alvarez. “The CITGO-Venezuela Heating Oil Program is the best expression of the consistency of the social values of the government of President Hugo Chavez and its good will toward the American people.”
Income eligible households can receive up to 100 gallons of heating oil by calling Citizens Energy to fill out an application. The toll-free number is 1-877-JOE-4-OIL.