By Sarah Talmadge The Bay State Banner BALTIMORE — Tiara Frierson and her children found refuge in a family shelter last year after an illness left her hospitalized and unpaid rent and utility bills left them homeless. The strain of keeping the heat on during a difficult time was almost too much to bear, said Frierson, expressing hope that families facing similar crises can find help to stay warm in the dead of winter. “The utility bills were just overwhelming,” said an emotional Frierson from the pulpit of the Salem United Methodist Church during an event last week kicking off the heating oil assistance program run by Citizens Energy Corporation of Boston in partnership with CITGO Petroleum. “I’m just glad that the shelter was here to take us in.” The shelter, run out of the church’s basement, is one of over 220 nationwide to receive heating oil this year through the $60 million Citizens-CITGO initiative, which also delivers free fuel to Native American tribes, tenant-owned cooperatives and individual households in over 20 states, including Massachusetts. Former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, the founder and chairman of Boston-based Citizens Energy, said stories like Frierson’s illustrate the tough choices faced by families all across the country. “The federal fuel assistance program reaches only one-fifth of all the eligible households in the U.S.,” said Kennedy. “Millions of families just go cold at night in their own home. It’s not just the statistics that strike you, it’s the people behind them.” Before Kennedy joined with CITGO President Alejandro Granado to unspool a hose from a fuel truck and fill the outdoor tank of the shelter with heating oil, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D- Maryland) praised the companies for stepping up to try and fill the gap in the heating needs of low-income families in Maryland and other states. “The demand is greater and the resources are shorter,” said the veteran Baltimore congressman as a murmur of “amens” arose from the packed stone sanctuary. “We must not turn our heads away from the working poor — remember, we could be in the same position. The help you provide to families is bigger than just the oil. It’s about helping children lead stable lives.” The CITGO president noted that 2013 marks the eighth year that the Houston-based oil firm, which is owned by Venezuela’s national oil company, has partnered with Citizens Energy to provide heating oil to needy families. He noted that the warmth comes as a gift from the people of Venezuela and President Hugo Chavez, who has supported the initiative since its creation in the wake of high heating prices following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “The CITGO-Venezuela Heating Oil Program has been one of the most important energy assistance efforts in the United States,” said Granado, who joined with the congregation in praying for the recovery of Chavez. The Venezuelan president has been in Havana since December recuperating from his fourth cancer surgery. “This year, as families across the Eastern Seaboard struggle to recover from the losses caused by Hurricane Sandy, this donation becomes even more significant,” Granado said. Granado noted that the program has helped over 1.7 million stay warm over the last eight years through the donation of more than 200 million gallons of heating oil worth more than $400 million. Kennedy praised Chavez, CITGO and Venezuela as the only company and the only country that responded to his appeals for help to assist low-income households with their rising heating costs. “I don’t see Exxon responding. I don’t see other major oil companies heating the homes of the poor,” said Kennedy.