When the coronavirus pandemic caused the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort to temporarily close its doors to the public in 2020, employee Stephanie McElfresh moved to the Tribe’s Workforce Development and Social Services Department. The phones rang all day as Tribal members and community residents sought relief from the crisis, and McElfresh jumped in to help the department manage the flow.
The temporary role shaped by emergency circumstances turned into an opportunity for McElfresh to shift her life and career. She began working full-time for WFSS as a receptionist, becoming personally acquainted with many of the clients that walk through its doors throughout the course of a year.
Now, McElfresh works as an admissions counselor for the Tribe’s LIHEAP, or Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. She works alongside officemate Andrea Smiley, who started at WFSS not long before McElfresh. Smiley has been familiar with the department’s many resources since her kids were young and participating in the Johnson O’Malley program.
The two quickly developed a rapport and have the many behind-the-scenes steps towards approving clients for LIHEAP assistance down to an efficient and lively dance.
“Andrea and I work very close and share an office together to make sure that all of our Tribal members and other tribal members within jurisdiction get the services that they need,” McElfresh told the Hownikan in a recent interview.
She continues to work closely with the clients on a face-to-face basis throughout the application process, while Smiley handles the finances and recordkeeping. The two share many of the community outreach responsibilities, bringing a personal touch and expert knowledge of the entire process to the table for each client.
LIHEAP is a federally funded program under the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families that helps low-income households meet their immediate home energy needs. Administered by states, federally recognized tribes and other local agencies, LIHEAP benefits include assistance with primary heating and cooling bills during winter and summer months, respectively; assistance with small energy-related home repairs; emergency relief in energy crises; and community education about energy-saving best practices.
CPN has operated a LIHEAP program for as long as Margaret Zientek, Director of Workforce Development and Social Services, can remember — certainly longer than the 25 years she has worked for the Tribe.
Funding is determined formulaically, with tribal entities receiving a portion of state funds based on service area size and income levels.
CPN LIHEAP is allotted a minimum of $200,000 each season. For the 2022 cooling season, the program received $303,000 and served 250 households. Smiley and McElfresh hope to see that number climb.
Seeing everyone within the service area who needs assistance receive it motivates them, but they also focus on the long-term continuation and expansion of the LIHEAP program.
Any funds that the program does not use by the end of each season must be sent back, Smiley explained.
“If we have to send anything back, then the next season, they’re going to shorten what we get,” she said. “And so we’re trying not to do that.”
“Margaret (Zientek) fights so hard to get us the funding that we get, so we want to make her proud and show her that her work isn’t going unnoticed,” McElfresh added.
Any household that has at least one person who is a member of a federally recognized tribe, meets income guidelines and is within the Tribe’s six-county service area (Pottawatomie, Lincoln, Payne, Oklahoma, Cleveland and Seminole counties) is eligible for LIHEAP assistance through CPN WFSS.
“There are a lot of people who think you have to be Potawatomi,” Smiley said. “They just have to be a member of a federally recognized tribe, and I think we miss a lot because of that.”
The application requires two forms of ID for the applicant and anyone else in the household, including children; proof of income; documentation of child support; the relevant utility bill (heating or cooling, depending on the season); and any Social Security, disability or Veteran Affairs benefits or other excluded income.
Applicants may be hesitant to disclose other benefits they receive or to reveal the true size of their household for fear of not receiving the needed aid. McElfresh emphasized the importance of disclosing all factors in full — it will only help them get approved for the appropriate aid. For example, some benefit programs such as SNAP auto-qualify applicants for LIHEAP assistance, even if their income exceeds the thresholds set by LIHEAP.
Zientek noted the challenges around effectively getting the word out about the program.
“If they don’t take the newspaper, where do they hear about it? How do they know? Do they watch the news? … And the application is now electronic for the state. How do they do that if they don’t have access?” Zientek asked.
Smiley and McElfresh walk applicants through every step of the process, sometimes even personally going to their homes to help them fill out the forms — especially elders.
Tribal elders make up a large proportion of the LIHEAP clientele, and Zientek believes that without her team’s dedicated outreach efforts, many elders would not have access to the benefits.
Single parents and individuals with disabilities also make up a considerable number of households relying on LIHEAP assistance for their energy needs.
Every client’s situation is unique, and McElfresh and Smiley find enormous fulfillment in meeting each one’s circumstances and filling their needs to the fullest extent possible.
“Margaret is a fantastic boss. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to be working for or working with,” McElfresh said.
“When she put me and Andrea together, I don’t really think she knew what she was doing. But I think she did because we hit the floor running, and we make sure that each individual family, whether they’re living off Social Security or they’re getting paystubs … gets treated with respect and knows that they’re not alone.”
Learn more about LIHEAP at cpn.news/liheapfacts.
For CPN Tribal members who live outside of the CPN jurisdiction, state, local or tribal assistance may be available in their area. Find a state LIHEAP directory at cpn.news/liheapstate and a tribal LIHEAP directory at cpn.news/liheaptribes.
CPN tribal members are also eligible for the hardship application no matter their geographical location. Learn more by calling 405-878-3854.