Northern Children’s Services races to replace boiler as temperatures plunge

 Hutter Hall and Merrick Hall in the snow. (Janis Chakars/for NewsWorks)

Hutter Hall and Merrick Hall in the snow. (Janis Chakars/for NewsWorks)

With the mercury predicted to hit single digits over the weekend, workers hurried on Friday to replace a broken boiler at Northern Children’s Services that has left three buildings without heat for over three weeks.

“We’re going to have faucets trickling,” said Renata Cobbs-Fletcher, president of Northern Children’s Services, worried about pipes freezing.

As the day ended, the job remained unfinished. The new boiler will have to wait until Monday at the earliest, but even then warmth is not ensured. The company, Elliot-Lewis, requires full payment before turning the heat back on.

It is a $90,000 job. Northern gave half up front by putting off other bills and scouring its coffers. “It was robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Cobbs-Fletcher.

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A GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly $11,000. Staff are busy stuffing envelopes with an appeal to past donors. The children served at Northern are safe and services have continued, but the busted boiler is a crisis.

“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Cobbs-Fletcher.

Renta Cobbs-Fletcher

Renata Cobbs-Fletcher, president of Northern Children’s Services, in the cafeteria, which is currently without heat. (Janis Chakars/for NewsWorks)

The budget impasse in Harrisburg have made finances at Northern especially tight. Reimbursements for services have only recently begun to dribble in. There has been no word about a Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program grant application Northern submitted last February that could have covered the boiler as well as roof work, gutters, drain spouts, electrical work and other needs. In fact, the heater that broke was the back-up machine in a two-boiler system.

“These buildings look beautiful, but on the inside they are old,” said Jacqui Patterson, chief development officer.

For Patterson and Northern, the chill on campus and in the state budget means moving up plans for a new capital campaign focused on infrastructure. The first step is getting the heat back on. Replacing the two boilers will total about $200,000.

“We’re just hoping more private donors step forward,” said Patterson.

One of those donors is the Philadelphia Eagles, who are sending electricians to make sure staff are safe among their patchwork of half-helping space heaters.

Staff have been bundled up, working from home, or relocated to other parts of campus.

“I’m all about layering so I have two pairs of wool socks and two pairs of pants, a wool sweater and winter jacket on today,” said Bonnie Dugan, manager of marketing and communications.

The children who live at Northern or use its services after school were not left in the cold — programs were relocated to heated areas and residences were unaffected — but they did lose their gymnasium and cafeteria both located in Hutter Hall, the centerpiece of the campus.

“They probably miss basketball the most,” said Dugan, “but in terms of therapy or other help they are getting everything.”

None of the residential buildings on campus were affected and the Department of Human Services sent representatives to ensure that adequate care continued on site.

“The programs in the buildings where the heat went out were not DHS programs,” said Alicia Taylor, communication director for the city agency’s health and human services cabinet. “We have been in constant contact. There are children there.”

Still, that does not fix or pay for the boiler.

“It is on us to raise the money. The city is very supportive in checking the programs and making sure everyone is warm and safe, but everybody’s budgets are tight,” said Cobbs-Fletcher.

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