Warm Hearts, Warm Homes

Montana Conservation Corps crews help locals winterize

By Clare Menzel

Two Octobers ago, when Walks the West Wind moved to Montana from Arkansas, she settled into an older mobile home in Columbia Falls with her Rottweiler, Niki. Then it got cold. The mobile had little insulation and no storm windows. Winter air sunk in through the thin panes of glass and heat—costly heat—easily escaped.

Walks the West Wind lives with a pacemaker, scoliosis, diabetes, and Raynaud’s, a condition where the arteries spasmodically respond to cold temperatures by decreasing blood flow to extremities.

“That first winter was bad,” Walks the West Wind said. “There was no heat. Thankfully, dogs’ body temperatures run at 100.”

This winter will be different. Recently, as part of the Warm Hearts Warm Homes initiative, a crew of Montana Conservation Corps AmeriCorps members visited Walks the West Wind to winterize her home.

The state-funded program, now in its 10th year, aims to help people who have qualified for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program get through the winter and keep up with their energy bills through colder months.

“I look at it as a true blessing,” Walks the West Wind said. “Montana really takes care of its old and disabled folks. It cares that we live in safe and healthy homes.”

MCC crewmembers also educate, leaving the resident with a plan for managing energy usage through winter.

“That’s where we all stand to gain,” said Jedd Sankar-Gorton, a MCC field coordinator. “We go out and educate people on their own energy usage – the connection between comfort and money spent and how they can have a little more agency with that.”

For the past two weeks, MCC crews have spread through the state winterizing the homes of about 1,200 Montanans like Walks the West Wind, said Sankar-Gorton. The crews operating from the Kalispell office have assisted some 350 homes this fall, 75 of which were in the Flathead.

Lorraine Wigner’s Evergreen mobile was one of the last that Kalispell crewmembers visited this season. The Flathead native, who has lived in her home with her German Shepherd Blueboy since 1996, has seen her fair share of harsh winters.

“Their service is priceless,” Wigner said. “I can’t go out there and do it myself, and I can’t afford it. For me it’s really serious. There’s not much to me, I get cold easily. I have arthritis and you get hurting bad in the cold.”

Like Walks the West Wind, Wigner said, “they [the crewmembers] are a blessing. They’re wonderful, good-hearted people.”

They arrive with window insulation and leave people like Wigner and Walks the West Wind with the prospect of a winter both affordable and warm.

On a shelf below Walks the West Wind’s kitchen windowsill is an optimistic garden. Fourteen multicolored children’s sand pails hold budding herbs and vegetables. There’s even an apple tree sapling poking out through the dirt. It rises up starkly against the insulated glass windowpane, bathed in warm sunlight as cold northern winds blow outside.

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