Project ElderCool will install 450 air conditioners this year
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - Five years and 1,659 air conditioners later, the Bishop Sullivan Center's Project ElderCool is continuing in its mission to prevent summer heat deaths in Kansas City.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Wyatt Roberts, a student at the UMKC School of Law who will spend this summer installing air conditioners for the Bishop Sullivan Center, loads one of the first units in Operation ElderCool 2004.
"I know it has had an impact," said Colleen Raviell, who directs the program for the social service agency in northeast Kansas City. "When we started in 1999, there were 21 heat deaths. That's gone down every year since then."
The program delivers and installs a free window-mounted air conditioner into the homes of qualified elderly clients and deposits $50 to their utility accounts to encourage their clients to use their new air conditioners.
In order to qualify for a unit, clients must be elderly or disabled because of a respiratory problem and must meet income guidelines that indicate they are unable to purchase an air conditioner on their own, Raviell said.
The program normally installs about 400 a year. This year, Raviell said, Project ElderCool has ordered 450 units.
"We'll keep installing them as long as the weather mandates," Raviell said.
The program was born during the heat wave of 1998 when Bishop Sullivan Center director Tom Turner received a call from an elderly client begging for help. Dipping into the center's tight budget, Turner purchased the woman an air conditioner then installed it himself. He then scraped together enough donations to purchase and install air conditioners in another 44 homes before that summer ended.
That winter, Turner solicited more donations from Bishop Sullivan Center benefactors to create a more formal program. The goal that year was to cool the homes of 200 clients.
But as word of the program spread through the Kansas City media, both demand for the units and donations to Project ElderCool allowed the program to install 448 units - more than twice the goal.
Raviell said that Project ElderCool has been installing about 400 air conditioners every year since then.
One of last year's recipients was an elderly woman who asked for a unit in her bedroom.
"She had placed six fans around her bed, blowing at full blast," said Turner, who also personally installed that woman's air conditioner. "I could just picture this poor woman trying to sleep at night in the midst of the roar of fans that were only moving hot and humid air around."
Raviell said that for years, some agencies in Kansas City have offered free fans. But for the elderly, who frequently don't realize they are suffering from the heat until it is too late, and keep their windows locked because of fear of crime, fans can make the climate worse inside an overheated house.
"It can create an effect like a convection oven," Raviell said. "Then it becomes a bigger problem."
Raviell said Project ElderCool began receiving calls from the elderly in May. But it also began receiving donations from the public, thanks to a pamphlet that the Kansas City Water Department included in bills.
"It's incredible the response we got from that," she said. "This is people sending in $5 or $10. There is no huge clutch of money that we get from anybody. It's all small, individual donors."
Raviell said Project ElderCool has become well known thanks to its "media partners" - KFKF-FM 94.1, and KSHB-TV 41, as well as coverage in The Kansas City Star, The Catholic Key and other print and broadcast news media.
It's a program that strikes a chord with the public.
"Everyone relates to heat," Raviell said. "Even if you live and work in an air-conditioned environment, you still have to go outside and get into a hot car."
Raviell said the donations this year have allowed Project ElderCool to purchase the air conditioners in bulk at a discount. Neenan Plumbing Supply is storing the units free of charge and delivering them to the Bishop Sullivan Center as the need arises, she said.
She noted that the units are simple, install quickly, and operate on 110-volt household circuits.
"These are not luxury units," she said. "They will cool one room and prevent someone from suffering from the heat."
Requests for air conditioners can be made by calling the Bishop Sullivan Center at (816) 231-0984.
Donations to Project ElderCool can be sent to the center at 6435 Truman Road, Kansas City, MO 64126.