By Justin Skarb
The holiday season offers a time for reflection—a time to look back on the year, not only at the many challenges and opportunities, but also at the progress. The districts Cal Water serves are the communities we have called home for more than 90 years. That’s why we are committed to investing in the long-term health of our communities and improving the quality of life for our customers and neighbors. As we continue to deal with a global pandemic that has created extraordinary challenges, we remain committed to meeting the needs of our communities and helping them thrive.
Throughout the year, we partnered with local nonprofit organizations that share our commitment. While the pandemic limited our in-person volunteerism, Cal Water increased our support through in-kind contributions and financial donations to meet critical needs and strengthen the 100+ communities we call home. From extending an extra hand during the holidays to preparing the next generation of leaders, to supporting customers in need, our team prioritizes giving back.
The coronavirus continues to create financial challenges for our customers and communities. To help alleviate some of the financial strain for customers who lost their jobs or were otherwise hard hit financially, we recently applied with the State to provide $20.8 million in debt relief for our past-due customers. We also continue to offer support through our Customer Assistance Program, which provides discounts to qualified customers, and provide flexibility to our customers through payment arrangements and extensions.
For many families, these financial challenges have been compounded during the holidays, creating times of stress instead of celebration. Throughout our districts, we tried to ease that burden on our communities, by providing food and donations through events like Operation Gobble, and the inaugural Operation Santa Claus, helping to provide presents and holiday cheer for almost 1,000 children in our King City District with Monterey County Supervisor Chris Lopez.
Beyond the pandemic, California continues to experience devastating wildfire seasons. Our firefighters, who work tirelessly to keep our customers, employees, and communities safe, have been stretched for resources, as they confront record-setting fires every year. That’s why we awarded $174,500 to eight local fire departments across our service areas, increasing the amount by 18% over last year. These funds help provide vital gear and life-saving equipment, such as replacement hoses, a HeloPod, personal protective equipment, a rescue raft, and hydraulic vehicle extrication tools for the brave men and women protecting our communities.
Cal Water also continued its ongoing support of the next generation of leaders in our service areas, as we know that the vibrancy of the communities we serve is inextricably tied to the educational opportunities afforded to students. This year, Cal Water provided $80,000 in scholarships to 12 college students. Out of more than 300 applicants, these winners were selected based on outstanding academic achievement, community service, and financial need. One-third of the recipients this year are first-generation college attendees.
This commitment to the next generation extends to ensuring our young leaders understand the importance of conservation, and learning wise water-use habits as California endures another drought. Through the Cal Water H2O Challenge, a project-based classroom competition in which students learn about caring for water, we awarded this year’s winners—fifth- and sixth-graders from Munsey Elementary in Bakersfield, Calif.—a $3,500 classroom grant and a $1,000 scholarship for each participating student, for their project proving greywater can be used to solve water conservation challenges.
Amidst immense challenges, we continue to be inspired by individuals and organizations who strive to improve the lives of their fellow community members, and were proud to support them in making an impact. Along with other contributions to local food banks and community aid organizations, we recently announced $200,000 donations each to: the Chico Housing Action Team in Chico, to provide housing to individuals as they transition from homelessness and shelters to a more stable, safer life; the Boys & Girls Club in Stockton, to support new facilities located within federal housing projects; and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, to help educate students from disadvantaged areas about protecting marine wildlife and the ecosystem and becoming responsible stewards of the environment.
Our commitment to enhancing the lives of those in the communities we serve extends to every Cal Water employee, who live this philosophy every day. To further this commitment and support the causes near and dear to our team, this year, we created a new employee charitable donation matching program. This encourages employees to support non-profit organizations by doubling the impact of their charitable donations with matching contributions from the company. Contributions are matched up to $250 per employee per calendar year.
These challenging times call for a renewed commitment to those we serve, and we are grateful to be able to help our fellow community members in need. As a water provider and community partner, our purpose is to enhance the quality of life for our customers and communities, and we are committed to doing that year after year.
Justin Skarb is Director of Community Affairs & Government Relations at California Water Service