Feb. 20– Feb. 20–When it got cold, Danny and Melissa Burno had to fire up kerosene heaters to warm their home on Chatsworth Drive.
They lived without household heat for more than a year in their tidy brick home not far from bustling Route 17. Their financial problems weren’t of their own making — it started when Danny suffered a stroke — but they had to deal with it.
"Yeah … life," Melissa said. "Life happens."
But as a chilly rain fell across much of Newport News on Wednesday, the Burnos relaxed in warm comfort while workers finished a series of improvements that will keep them safe and dry for years to come.
"I could shout for joy," Melissa said.
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The Burno household is the first in Hampton Roads to qualify for a program called "100 Homes for 100 Veterans," a Dominion Energy project that grew from the utility’s EnergyShare program. It involves partnering with local weatherization agencies to help deserving veterans upgrade their homes to save money going forward.
STOP Inc., a Virginia Beach-based community action agency, provided a new gas heating unit, a water heater and insulation for the attic. They finished Wednesday by installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, air filters and other improvements.
A sudden turn
Danny Burno served six years in the Navy during the 1980s. He worked in shipboard communications and after leaving the Navy did stints at shipyards in Philadelphia and Connecticut.
Now 57, he and Melissa have been married for 22 years. They’ve known each other since they were teenagers growing up in Philadelphia.
She is a career nurse, and eventually they settled in Newport News, both working at Peninsula Catholic High School. Danny worked in maintenance while she was the part-time nurse.
In December 2015, they left school for the traditional Christmas break.
A short time later, Danny suffered a stroke and their lives took a sudden turn. Melissa quit her job as the school nurse to care for her husband. Their household income dropped overnight, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
They recently had bought a house and two cars, and now those payments loomed large.
Melissa credits her extended family at Peninsula Catholic for helping out during those first difficult days.
"They fed me for a good two weeks," she said.
But keeping up with the bills was another matter. Their gas heater wasn’t working properly — the gas bill rose to several hundred dollars a month — and they eventually fell behind.
Thankfully, Danny talked with a family friend and fellow veteran who pointed them in the direction of Dominion.
Dominion steps in
Bonita Harris, a utility spokeswoman, said she learned of the family’s situation in November. The 100 Homes for 100 Veterans had just started, but hadn’t yet targeted families in Hampton Roads.
Danny and Melissa Burno sounded like "the perfect first ones to do in our area," Harris said.
A few bureaucratic hurdles stood in their way. Dominion reached out to STOP, which can make a variety of weather-related improvements to qualified residents.
Based in Virginia Beach, the organization wasn’t authorized to work in Newport News, so it sought and received special permission from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, according to Tyrone Sessoms Sr., STOP’s vice president for housing and economic development.
By then, the gas had been turned off in the Burno home, and STOP needed a working gas service to begin helping the family. So the gas bill was paid through Dominion.
"Once we got the gas on, we got a contractor to look at the heating unit and it had be totally replaced," Sessoms said.
Other improvements followed, and Sessoms was at the house Wednesday as STOP workers put the finishing touches on the house.
"It’s humbling at times," he said.
A wall plaque just inside the front door of the Burno home neatly sums up their ordeal and ultimate victory. It reads: "Home is Where Our Story Begins."
Do you qualify?
Veterans who want more information about 100 Homes for 100 Veterans should call the Dominion Energy conservation hotline at 888-366-8280 and select option 3 for "low income programs."
Hugh Lessig, 757-247-7821, firstname.lastname@example.org, @hlessig on Twitter
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