KALAMAZOO -- A Kalamazoo religious group has launched what it believes is a first-in-the-nation assistance program for low-income people having trouble paying for gasoline.
     The nonprofit program operates under the name Free Gas USA Inc., and it's taking applications for gas grant cards that range in value from $50 to $1,200, depending on people's needs and circumstances.
     "Those in need can get assistance with food and other needs, but with the cost of gas today, we thought that they should get help with that, too," the Rev. William Stein said. "We looked around and couldn't find another program like this. We are unique in that regard."
     The program is affiliated with Baptism Ministries USA, an inter-denominational ministry based at the Church of the Brethren in Oshtemo Township. Stein is the pastor at Baptism Ministries.
     In order to be eligible for a gas card, a person's yearly income must be at or below the "very low income limit" category as defined for specific geographic locations by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Stein said. That number in Kalamazoo County is $21,200.

     Applications online only
     Anyone in the United States and its territories can apply for a gas card, provided they are U.S. citizens.
     The gas cards are awarded monthly and there is no limit to the number of cards a person can apply for, Stein said. To save on mailing costs, those interested in the program can only access application documents on the group's Web site.
     Each applicant also must include a copy of his or her most recent tax return and referral letter from a human service agency or church stating their need, Stein said.
     The group has been receiving donations from private individuals, churches and corporations for months and is planning a national gasoline rally sometime later this summer to drum up more dollars, Stein said.
     The group also participates in Meijer Inc.'s Community Rewards Program, which allows customers at the grocery chain to direct a portion of their total purchase price to a charity or other assistance organization.

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