A Burlington couple that once struggled to pay their heating bills is now back on their feet and staying warm. The husband and wife are using laughs to help others keep their heat on. Not only are the two comedians using what they know best to help families in need, but they're giving back to the same organization that helped them avoid going cold.
Whether it's new material or fine-tuning a classic, jokes are flying in Nectar's. At Wednesday's open-mic night, host Natalie Miller and her husband Nathan Hartswick filled the space with laughter.
But things weren't so funny for the duo a few winters ago.
"We opened in September, and that first winter was really, really hard for us. It's super hard to be an entrepreneur and we just got in over our heads. And it was February, and we couldn't afford to pay our heating bills," Miller said.
Miller and Hartswick left their jobs to follow their passion and start the Vermont Comedy Club. But the couple says despite working 80 hours a week they couldn't make ends meet.
"When the moment comes and you realize, wow, we might actually have to have our heat shut off, it's a hard thing to take that step and walk into the office at CVOEO and ask for assistance. You don't want to do it. But the fact that it was there, It really saved us," Hartswick said.
That helping hand from the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, Miller and Hartswick say, kept them warm that winter. And now that business has picked up for their comedy club, they decided it was time to return the favor.
"We don't have a lot of money to give to this program, but we can make a lot if we do what we do, which is produce comedy shows," said Hartswick.
"Originally, it started with one show and we went into a meeting with them and as we usually do, we get a little carried away. And by the end of the meeting, it ended up being three shows and a fundraising campaign," said Miller.
Called "Operation WARMTH," the couple has organized a three-show comedy tour across the state. Each show will have a mix of local talent, and every penny raised will go directly to the statewide WARMTH program, an initiative that helps Vermonters with fuel assistance.
"Within just CVOEO territory we have already provided over 1,900 assists. Which is up about 150 to 200 from last year," said Travis Poulin of CVOEO.
And the need for help is up. On top of the extra-frigid temperatures this year, federal budget cuts mean low-income Vermonters who once qualified for assistance three times last year, now only receive help once a year.
"And if you're thinking of an assist as being even just a simple delivery of fuel, minimum delivery of fuel is about $400. So if you're losing out on two possible deliveries of fuel that your household was relying on the state to help you with, that is significant," said Poulin.
Although the possibility of families being left in the cold is nothing to laugh about, Hartswick and Miller say by warming people's hearts they will be able to warm people's homes.
The couple hopes to raise about $20,000 through the comedy tour, after a dollar-for-dollar match from Green Mountain Power. A total, that makes up about 5 percent of the organization's budget from last year.
For more information on Operation WARMTH and the Comedy Tour dates and locations -- http://vermontcomedyclub.com/