Phil Scott’s Wheels for Warmth Gives Used Tires a New Spin – by Michelle Hughes

Phil Scott’s Wheels for Warmth Gives Used Tires a New Spin

by Michelle Hughes 

Copyright The Montpelier Bridge 2007

Tucked away in the back corner of my garage sit two perfectly good Hakkapeliitta snow tires, still neatly wrapped in the plastic Nokian covers they were placed in four years ago – the last time they were used. They don’t fit my current car, so they serve no purpose other than to occupy space designated for bikes and sleds. But that’s about to change. Soon they’re going on a journey to help someone stay warm this winter – a journey known as Wheels for Warmth.

Wheels for Warmth evolved from the Vermont tradition of neighbor helping neighbor.  In 2005, Phil Scott had an idea: Wasn’t there some way that used tires could serve a better purpose than just taking up garage space?  Scott had tires he no longer used, and he knew many others did too.  Listening to “The Trading Post” on WDEV every morning, he was overwhelmed by the number of tires on the program. His idea became the vision that used tires could be the currency to buy emergency heating fuel for central Vermonters.  All used tires could play a role, not just quality tires, but worn tires too. Safe tires could be re-sold at very affordable prices, and unsafe tires recycled for a fee.  The proceeds would then be used to buy the heating fuel. One neighbor donates tires, another neighbor buys them, and another neighbor’s home is heated. Unusable tires head for recycling instead of the river.  Scott felt pretty confident the plan would work, so he contacted Hal Cohen, Executive Director of the Central Vermont Community Action Council (CVCAC) – the local organization that assists people who cannot afford heating fuel.

“To be honest, when Phil first approached me with his idea I was pretty skeptical,” Cohen said. “It was a good idea, but I didn’t think anyone could pull it off.”  Cohen’s initial reaction is understandable.  The implementation of Scott’s vision would require a pretty significant logistical operation, and an enormous amount of community engagement.  What Cohen didn’t realize, however, was what he perceived to be challenges were in fact some of Scott’s strengths.  Cohen changed from skeptic to believer when he attended the first meeting Scott convened to discuss launching the Wheels for Warmth initiative. 

“When I walked into that first Wheels for Warmth meeting and saw how many volunteers Phil already had in place, I knew he could make it happen. Phil has a pretty impressive group of committed supporters,” Cohen noted.  Casella Waste Management was on board – ready to accept tires for recycling for a fee lower than what they would normally charge, and committed to donating 50% of the recycling fees collected to the Wheels for Warmth initiative. Inspectors from the Department of Motor Vehicles had volunteered to ensure the tires were road-worthy, but that threshold was not sufficient for Scott.  “I felt strongly that the tires available for purchase had to be more than safe – they had to be road-worthy for a complete season,” he explained.  

WDEV Radio had volunteered to promote the event, and broadcast live during the day of the tire sale. McGillicuddy’s Irish Pub and Capitol Grounds donated food and drinks. Cohen brought along members of his Community Action Motors team, and many others volunteered to assist in any way needed.  But for Scott’s vision to become a reality, the biggest donation came from his DuBois Construction Company.  DuBois not only donated their site for the three-day event, but also trailers, staff time, cones – anything useful they had, they contributed. After all, it was Scott’s vision that was being set into motion.

“Coming up with an idea that used tires could be donated to help others stay warm is one thing,” Scott said, “but making it happen is another. Without the incredible dedication of so many friends, employees and community members, Wheels for Warmth would never have gotten off the ground.” 

From the beginning, Scott knew that any financial contribution to the Crisis Fuel Program would be beneficial.  Heating fuel prices had doubled in recent years, which unfortunately put even greater demand on the program’s resources.  But what he didn’t know was that federally-mandated eligibility requirements often tied CVCAC’s hands; the Crisis Fuel Program could only aid someone whose income fell within federal ‘poverty’ guidelines. With fuel prices rising, more and more people were falling through the cracks.  Senior citizens living on pensions, veterans receiving benefits, working families with children in daycare – no one is immune from crisis, yet often the amount of benefits or wages these people received made them ineligible for fuel assistance under the federal guidelines. 

“We hate to turn anyone away who needs help,” Cohen says, “but only a fraction of our total budget can be used for discretionary purposes. We don’t have the flexibility to move funds from one program to another.” So what happens if someone comes to CVCAC because they cannot afford heating fuel, but their income makes them ineligible for fuel assistance – someone like sixty year-old Earline?

“Things were pretty tight for us,” Earline said. “I took a bad fall and had to have surgery on my shoulder, which meant I was out of work and not being paid.  My husband and I were trying to make ends meet on his pension – but his pension was too high for us to receive any crisis fuel help. He passed away in January. I’ve been trying to survive on my widow’s pension since then, but it’s impossible. None of the things that have happened have been in my control.”  

Sue Rossi works on the frontlines at CVCAC. She is the person who tries to help people like Earline who cannot afford heating fuel. According to Rossi, Earline’s story is similar to stories she hears every day, and her situation – her husband’s pension income too high for them to receive crisis fuel assistance – more common than most people understand. However, Rossi did find a way to help Earline get the fuel she needed. She tapped a source of funds dedicated for crisis fuel assistance that had no strings attached.  She used funds donated by Wheels for Warmth. “Thank God for Wheels for Warmth,” Rossi said. “I don’t know how we’d be able to help these people without it.”

“You could describe Wheels for Warmth as a win-win situation, but it’s more than that,” Phil Scott says. “For me it’s one of those rare opportunities to make a positive impact on many fronts.  At the top of the list is that Wheels for Warmth proceeds are used to buy heating fuel for anyone who needs a helping hand.  Providing an opportunity for people to buy safe tires at very affordable prices, or preventing a tire from being dumped in the river by recycling it instead – these are things that matter a lot to me too.”  

But Scott says that Wheels for Warmth has yet another benefit, one that’s often overlooked. “This will be the third year that we’ve held Wheels for Warmth.  For the past two years I’ve heard the same thing – not just from volunteers, but also from people who dropped off tires and people who bought tires: people feel good about helping other community members. People feel good about participating in something that’s going to make a positive difference in the life of someone else. To describe Wheels for Warmth as a win-win doesn’t really place enough importance on that Vermont spirit of community,” Scott says.   

“Wheels for Warmth can’t work unless we have wheels,” Scott adds. “We need people to bring in tires they no longer use, and we encourage people who need affordable tires to come buy some at a great price.  We need tires donated and tires purchased so we can help others heat their homes.” 

That’s the journey those two Hakkapeliitta snow tires are taking.