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Sustaining the Weatherization Assistance Program: Donna Carmen and Delia Garcia of Indiantown Non-Profit Housing, Inc.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Donna Carman is a master organizer, grant writer, and community leader.  As executive director of Indiantown Non-Profit Housing, Inc. (INPHI), she oversees a number of housing programs that serve needy families, neighborhoods, and communities in Southeast Florida, drawing funds from governmental agencies, businesses, and charitable foundations.  She is "always motivated to do for others, just a giver," as she puts it. 

The mission of INPHI is to provide "safe, decent and affordable housing" along with "community, social, and economic development opportunities" for low and moderate income residents of Indiantown and the surrounding region.  Assistance includes purchasing, renting, repairing, and weatherizing homes.  Since Carman became director in January 1996, INPHI has leveraged over $51 million in private/public partnerships to support the agency's affordable housing mission.

Indiantown is a small community of only 5,000 people, but INPHI's weatherization services extend to six counties:  Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Okeechobee.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, which provided Florida with a three-year grant of $176 million for the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), enabled INPHI to increase its weatherization staff from three to 51 and place five teams in the field.  As of mid-February 2012, INPHI is weatherizing approximately 200 homes per month.

Under the guidance of Carman and WAP Coordinator Delia Garcia, INPHI has become one of the most productive agencies in the state.  In addition to employing laid-off construction workers, the agency's weatherization program has aided the local economy through the purchase of materials, equipment, and appliances from private businesses and vendors.

Although WAP has proven its worth in Florida and across the nation, Congress has cut annual WAP appropriations drastically this year, even as ARRA funds are running out.  Florida providers in the aggregate will receive $11.5 million for weatherization projects through February 2013, an amount that includes undistributed funds from previous years and money allocated for weatherization in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

"INPHI is closing out the ARRA funds this month," says Carman.  "We're in a ramp down mode, finishing up our work.  We're looking at other options, other resources, other things that we can do. . . . We've been somewhat depressed for the last couple months knowing that it's coming.  But when we hired everyone, we explained to them that the [ARRA] funds would end in February 2012. . . . Our objective is to try to get them through April, then we'll give them one month's severance pay."

The weatherization program at INPHI will not end, but Carman expects production to decline from 200 to 25 units per month, an 87 percent decrease.  Although aggrieved, Carman is not deterred from her larger mission.  She has built over time a stable organization that relies on multiple sources of support.  In recent years, her prolific grant writing has yielded income from the MacArthur Foundation ($140,000 for weatherization), the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, and the Martin County Neighborhood Stabilization Program.  Carman is currently looking into rehab projects, possibly utilizing funds from the Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB).  INPHI has been working with FHLB for over 16 years.

A very important partner is Florida Power and Light (FP&L).  "In Indiantown, they try to be a good neighbor," says Carman.  "They have always contributed back to the community.  Our relationship with FP&L is long-standing."  The utility company helped INPHI purchase its Community Service Center in December 2003 with a $100,000 grant.  According to an FP&L report, "Helping Others, Working Together," the company provided "over $1.4 million to customers in need" in 2010.  "These funds were distributed through the Salvation Army, community action agencies, and other partner agencies." 

In the interest of conserving energy and preventing or delaying the construction of costly new power plants, FP&L offers rebates for various kinds of weatherization:  up to $300 for insulation, $500 for A.C. units, $140 for base weatherization, and more.  INPHI does the work in the counties it serves and sends rebate forms to FP&L for reimbursement.  These utility weatherization funds will continue to be available to INPHI in the future.  

Carman recommends that other Florida groups make similar arrangements with utility companies, if they have not already.  It's "more paperwork, but not that much," she says.  She estimates that it would be cheaper and more efficient for nonprofit providers, rather than utility company employees, to do the initial client surveys and diagnostic evaluations.  She would also like to see the Public Service Commission encourage FP&L to raise its standards for initial energy audits and insulation (from R-19 to R-30), matching those of the federal Weatherization Assistance Program.  

The Florida Public Service Commission has approved modest rebates for weatherization but resisted more extensive rebates in the interest of keeping electricity rates low for consumers.  Looking ahead, Carman would like nonprofits to work more closely with utility providers and approach the Public Service Commission "with our combined ideas."
Donna Carman was born in northwest Georgia, where her father worked in the textile industry.  Her family moved to Indiantown when she was 12 years old and Carman has lived there ever since.  She met her future husband in high school and the two have two daughters, two grandsons, and one granddaughter.  As a child, "I always wanted to do stuff for others," she reflects.  "The interesting thing about growing up and being a Girl Scout or being in the Future Farmers of America is that I always wanted to make things better for everybody."

Carman credits her grant writing ability to participation in the Junior Chamber of Commerce.  "I learned how to write a business plan, which is a grant proposal."  She began her working life as a teller in a small Indiantown bank, took up secretarial work, then moved into management.  She is a state certified Real Estate Sales Person, a Certified Community Development Professional, and a Graduate of the Developmental Training Institute.  She is accredited in Business Administration, Finance, Health and Human Resource Development.

Carman was chosen to represent Florida weatherization providers at the annual state WAP meeting in early 2011.  "When they asked me to sit on the advisory board I thought, great, fine.  Then I went to the first meeting and I thought, I'm here representing all the weatherization agencies in Florida.  I don't have a clue what their questions are, what comments they want me to say.  This is not right - for one person to represent without having input from everybody.  So, OK, we have got to have a network, because I'm not going to take just my message to them. . . . We need to hear what everybody has to say."  The network idea came to fruition in mid-2011 with the formation of the Florida Weatherization Network, with Carman serving as president. 

 "I love doing stuff for other people.  I'm a nurturer.  I'm a mother.  That's all there is to it.  We aspire to do the best we can with what we've got.

Delia Garcia joined the INPHI staff in June 2003.  "I like what we do," she says.  "I like that we can improve the houses.  I like that I've learned so much about it."  Indeed, Garcia's ambition is to know everything about weatherization.  "I love the challenge.  I think life is a challenge," she says.  "I never say no.  Whatever it is, I think I can do it.”

When an ARRA training workshop in home energy audits was offered in Cocoa, Garcia insisted on going despite being pregnant with her fourth child.  Al- though she already knew much about the subject, "I actually learned a lot at the workshop," she says.  There were new rules and tools to learn about.  At the end of the day, she passed the certification test. 

Garcia has worked her way up from the shop floor to a managerial position at INPHI.  "Before the ARRA started . . . I did every role that there was in the weatherization program, every step.  I think it was beneficial for me in the end because now there is not a role I don't know.  If purchasing has a question, I can let them know the best way to find what they need or what materials to use."  She is grateful for the opportunity to serve at INPHI.  "Donna gave me a chance," she says. 

Garcia's fearless spirit and willingness to learn fit well with Carman's resilience and creative organizing ability.    The two are, in Carman's words, "a force to be reckoned with."

Roger Peace
The Florida Weatherization Network