How volunteers are keeping neighbors cool in extreme heat

Weather

People In Need, Inc. intern Brittani Stiltner (student at Ohio Wesleyan University) checks in a donation of fans. Courtesy: People In Need, Inc. of Delaware County Ohio, Dan Coutcher.

When temperatures rise and stay high, public health officials start warning: Check in on your neighbors. 

Many of the most vulnerable people — elderly, low-income and unhoused people — are the hardest to reach during times of crisis.

Benjamin Dunning with Denver Homeless Out Loud said this year’s heat waves are made worse by a shortage of workers and volunteers.

“Anything that relies on volunteer work … they have fewer people to connect with in order to get those things done,” Dunning said.

These on-the-ground helpers are effective, research shows, because of the trust and insider knowledge they have with the people they are trying to assist. 

“We know that (heat) is a need seasonally,” Dunning said. “The big issue is the people that can carry that stuff to them.”

Denver groups provide water bottles to those outside and information on cooling centers where people can escape the sun for a few hours, Rocky Mountain PBS reported.

Despite heat-related illnesses being completely preventable, an average of 658 people succumb every year in the United States. More people are expected to be affected this year as inflation has made paying cooling bills during heat waves more difficult.

In Indianapolis, volunteers with Johnson County Senior Services are delivering bottles of vitamin water and fresh produce. The organization provides free transportation, food and other services to almost 9,000 residents in an average month.

If people are living on a budget, elders may be forced to decide between buying medicine or food they need and cooling their homes, said Kim Smith, the executive director of the organization.

“We’ve had people call in that needed referrals for folks that can change their filters, to get their air conditioning repaired,” Smith said. “We would think just walking from the front door to a vehicle would not be that big of a deal. But to many … they have underlying health issues that cause their breathing to be compromised anyway.”

A 2021 study found that having a prior relationship with elderly people proactively kept elders safe during extreme weather conditions.

In Indianapolis, the volunteers who see them day in and day out, “are all things for all seniors in our county,” Smith said. “And if we don’t have the answer … we can get them the proper help that they need.”

For many people without air conditioning, keeping cool during the day is manageable, albeit inconvenient. Public spaces like libraries, churches, schools or government buildings often open their doors when the sun is out. 

But at night, an excessively hot apartment without airflow is not just unbearable, it’s dangerous.

“On the worst days, our volunteers work up a sweat just hauling fans out to our drive-thru food pantry,” Dan Coutcher of People In Need, Inc., told The Delaware Gazette. “It is difficult for many of us to imagine this kind of heat in our own home.”

People In Need, Inc. volunteer Shelly Eden accepts a fan donation from Liberty Township Fire Department Inspector Shad Gilbert. Courtesy: People In Need, Inc. of Delaware County Ohio, Dan Coutcher.

The group based in Delaware, Ohio, annually gives out hundreds of new fans to people in need, keeping them healthy and in their homes when they might otherwise need to go to an overnight shelter. They also have a food pantry and help families pay utility bills.

People In Need has handed out 190 fans so far to the families they serve. The food pantry sees about 300 families a week, many with children.

That’s especially important to address, as extreme heat has been associated with increasing antibiotic resistance, worsening mental health and impaired cognitive function in infants and children. 

Still, the organization relies on donations, and “generosity can’t keep pace with the need,” Coutcher said. “Who knows what next week may bring.”

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