Nominee’s nameSaunteel Jenkins

SEEN Changemaker CategoryNonprofits

A picture of the nomineeA picture of the nominee
Nominee’s job titleCEO
Nominee’s cityDetroit
Please describe why the nominee is a SEEN Changemaker:

Since 2014, Saunteel has led The Heat and Warmth Fund (THAW) as CEO, with the sole focus to keep Michigan families healthy, safe and warm. Founded in 1985, THAW is a nonprofit organization that provides emergency utility assistance to Michigan residents in need. THAW has provided over $200 million in utility assistance to more than 250,000 families across the state. THAW is proud to boast that 92 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to resources and programs.

Nearly 1.7 million Michigan households or 43 percent earn less than what they need to make to meet their basic needs. From 2010 to 2017, the basic cost of household expenses increased by 27 percent. With these figures in mind, Saunteel has guided THAW to expand its coverage and strategy to support the growing number of families who need assistance to avoid utility shutoffs that then lead to homelessness based on the family’s available resources. Last year alone, THAW served nearly 18,000 households, which included over 20,000 children and nearly 5,000 seniors.

Tell us about the individual’s accomplishments:

A lifelong Detroiter, Saunteel has been active in the public and civic realm for nearly 30 years, focused on serving and empowering the community through resources, policy and engagement.

Before joining THAW in 2014, Jenkins served as a member and president of Detroit City Council. During her tenure, she was known as one of the pragmatic voices on council. She was the first council member in over 90 years to be elected by the body for a leadership role, where she served as Council president in 2013. That same year, Jenkins was re-elected as one of two at-large council members.

From 2006-2009, Saunteel was the director of the residential treatment program at Mariners Inn, a Detroit homeless shelter for men fighting addiction. She also held a role in the private sector as a national business development sector director for a private education company, that provided tutoring services to low-income children across the country.

Recognized for her commitment to the community, Saunteel has been honored with several awards and recognitions, including most recently the Mariners Inn’s SHE Program Strong Award; one of the Crain’s Detroit Business Notable Women in Nonprofits; and Women’s Informal Network’s Most Influential African American Women in Metropolitan Detroit.

Saunteel is currently the board president for the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition (NEUAC). In addition, she serves as a board member on the Wayne State University’s Helping Individuals Go Higher (HIGH) Program; the Henry Ford Hospital & Health Network; Wayne State University’s School of Social Work; and Michigan Saves. She is also a member of DTE Energy Community Advisory Council and the International Women’s Forum.

How is he/she impacting the community or the lives of people in Metro Detroit or across the world.

During her time at THAW, Saunteel has provided vision and insight into much needed capacity, policy and innovation for Michigan families.

Soon after joining the team, Saunteel saw an imperative issue. The call center, fielding roughly 800 daily calls from Michigan families, was a contracted service. As CEO, she believes THAW’s responsibility to Michiganders in crisis is critical. An internal call center was assembled to deliver Michigan families answers quickly, honestly and by experts in utility assistance. Seeing many organizational needs, Saunteel led the creation of a five-year strategic plan for the organization, identifying key priorities, goals and direction.

Many of the programs offered through THAW are largely funded through federal and state government programs. Under Saunteel’s leadership, THAW has become a leader in advocacy, promoting enhanced policies for programs that support low income families or those in need of emergency utility assistance, such as Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and Michigan Energy Assistance Program (MEAP). Adapting to the changing landscape, THAW added new customer kiosks to support the over 8,550 individuals that visit the office. The kiosks allow individuals to apply for assistance, while also getting additional information on other services that allow them to become more self-sufficient.

THAW has launched numerous programs since Saunteel joined the organization. With rising costs of water throughout the country, THAW is leading a statewide program for water assistance. THAW also developed the iHEAL program for low-income families experiencing weather-related medical problems, such as asthma, pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.

Fulfilling needs of the community, THAW saw an opportunity to help federal workers that were furloughed during the cold winter months in early 2019. Many federal workers would not qualify for traditional assistance programs. Saunteel and the team designed an innovative Crowdrise campaign, Funds for Feds on Furlough, to raise funds. The funds went directly to those who were out of work during the partial government shutdown to ensure their utility bills were one less worry.


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