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People here need help, too, keeper of Angel Fund says

(ran West, East, South, Beach editions)

While many are searching for ways to help victims of the tsunami, city officials here want to help those a little closer to home.

They're hoping more people contribute to the Angel Fund, which began on Oct. 1.

"I know it's kind of the end of the (gift-giving) season. People are tapped out," said Debra Rose, the city planner who oversees the fund. "But we're going to get another wave when the heating bills come in."

She added, "Pinellas Park residents and utility customers have been really generous in donating to the fund, and we have had a good rate of participation. I hope they will continue to be supportive because we still have a lot of families out there who need help."

The Angel Fund is the brainchild of Pinellas Park council member Patricia Bailey-Snook, who admired the Pennies from Heaven program created by the Sumter Electric Cooperative. SECO customers who want to contribute simply round up their electric bills, and the extra money goes to a fund used for humanitarian purposes.

Pinellas Park's program is similar. Folks who receive water or sewer bills from the city can fill out a form and have a monthly charge added to the bill. Or they can send a check or stop by to drop off money.

In its first three months, the fund has collected about $22,500. Of that, $3,000 is money from utility bills and other small contributions; $7,500 is from Boulder Venture South, the developer of the former ParkSide mall; and $12,000 is seed money from the city.

The fund has spent about $12,000 to help 24 people, Rose said.

"Almost all of the people coming in have needed assistance with utilities," Rose said.

Some of that is a carryover from last year's hurricanes: Paychecks were decreased or lost when businesses slowed and closed during and after the storms.

"A lot of folks (are) still trying to recover from that whole season," she said.

The average person received $150 to $500 to help with utilities. Some of the higher bills are because people were months behind, trying to juggle things before coming for help, she said.

"What is astonishing to me is when I see people's incomes relative to what it cost to live . . . I'm kind of amazed they've been able to make it as long as they have," Rose said.

Others have asked for assistance with home repairs. In those cases, the help ranges from about $500 to $1,500. Again, some of those problems stem from hurricane damage.

HOW TO HELP

The Pinellas Park Angel Fund provides financial assistance to residents of Pinellas Park or its water and sewer districts for utilities, emergency home repairs, and child care during school breaks. For information, call 541-0805, ext. 2310. Direct donations can be made at the utility billing desk on the first floor of City Hall, 5141 78th Ave. N, or by mail to P.O. Box 1337, Pinellas Park, FL 33780.

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