Project Warm

Every spring, Louisville homeowners face the prospect of rising energy costs as the heat begins to increase and air conditioners are operating at full capacity throughout the summer months.

Insufficiently sealed windows and poorly caulked doors let the heat pour in through cracks, working against the overburdened A/C systems.

Especially vulnerable are the elderly on fixed incomes, who turn off their costly air conditioners to keep energy costs down and deal with the effects of the stifling heat. Also vulnerable are young children, just as damaged by high humidity as by chilling cold.

frankThere’s a growing voice in the country to battle runaway energy costs with solar heat, green roofs, high-performance glazed windows and alternative fuels. But all many of these people need are the rudiments of well-sealed homes.

Project Warm has been helping this underserved community for 35 years, with education, local partnerships and hands-on volunteerism. It began in the summer of 1980, a time well-remembered for double-digit inflation and a series of energy crises. Here in Louisville, Jim Davis the director of ACCEPT, a credit counseling service, became aware that people with marginal finances were being tripped up by their ever-higher utility bills.

Davis helped forge a partnership between LG&E, Metro Louisville and local volunteers.

“The focus was to help people reduce utility bills,” recalls Frank Schwartz, executive director of Project Warm, “through education and field efforts. Volunteers were encouraged to take classes and learn what the various terms meant – like convection, conduction, radiation – and then go out into the community and help seniors make their homes more weatherproof through stripping and caulking, those sorts of things.”

project-warm-logoSchwartz was a young social worker at the time, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He volunteered, and eventually became a full-time volunteer coordinator in 1983

LG&E and the city remain important partners, and the organization also gets foundation help. In addition, the upcoming Green Sparks Award event that honors people and organizations doing good work in the areas of sustainability and energy conservation is a fundraiser for Project Warm.

But the volunteers continue to be the essential core of the operation, including eight full-time skilled workers who go out on a weekly basis, and a cadre of part-timers, including 90-year-old Norm O’Grady, a retired GE employee who, says Schwartz, goes out all the time except when it’s too cold or “when the temperature exceeds his age.”

Working much like the Habitat for Humanity volunteers, the Project Warm group replaces broken glass, rebuilds doors, repairs holes in the walls, does weatherstripping and caulking and works on whatever other problems it finds in the home. Volunteers have found homes where one of the outside doors won’t lock or close tightly. And while Schwartz acknowledges that that’s a security issue, it’s also a sign that the door isn’t functioning properly enough to maintain the inside climate of the house.

“We don’t do electrical or plumbing work or major rehab,” he said. “We don’t see our mission so much to fix as to educate. One of our mottoes is ‘We help you so you can help yourself.’ ”

As part of that, people are encouraged to attend the organization’s educational workshops, to learn to repair and maintain on their own. In fact, Schwartz says, many of Project Warm’s volunteers initially attended the educational workshops.

While the original focus was on fixed-income seniors, it has spread to include needy low-income families, encompassing children, the other neediest population group. The main arms of the crusade include Project Blitz, helping seniors and the disabled prepare for winter; and workshops on energy-usage that, Schwartz says, attracts a disproportionate number of female heads of households.

“That’s too often where poverty resides,” says Schwartz.

The workshops include hands-on training on what’s required around the house, and attendees receive a kit, with materials such as plastic tape and weatherstripping, so they can do the work themselves. As many as 900 people attend these workshops, held in various locations around the city.

The third arm in the arsenal is the volunteer work, in which volunteers go out into the neighborhoods. “We get our referrals from social workers, relatives, neighbors, ministries, schools, community activists, the Family Resource Center and the Urban League,” Schwartz said. “Too many needy people aren’t sufficiently aware of our services.”

It’s spring, of course, so the pressure of preparing for winter’s cold is far off. However, says Schwartz, don’t discount the problems of summer heat. “I just read in Chicago, 700 people died in a summer. A few years ago, thousands died during an August heat spell. And Louisville’s summers can often be more intense than Chicago’s. More people in Louisville die of heat-related incidents than we know, but we don’t track that.”

He says the thrust this time of year is to give people defensive measures they can take to beat the heat. “Many people think they’re being smart managers by turning off the air-conditioner to keep their utility costs down and don’t realize the extent to which they’re risking their health.”

Since 1982, says the organization’s web site, Project Warm has provided free weatherization services to more than 37,000 low-income households in Louisville, reducing energy bills for these families up to 20 percent. To date, Project Warm’s clients have saved more than $25 million in energy costs.

Its full list of services, programs and its workshop schedule can be found in detail on projectwarm.org, including other places people can go for information or financial help.

The Green Spark Awards luncheon will be Tuesday, April 21, at The Olmsted, 3701 Frankfort Ave., 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Five awards will be given, one each from the business, education, non-profit, youth and individual sectors. The sponsors are LG&E, Neil Huffman Automotive Group, Norton Healthcare and Passport Health Plan.

Admission is $35 per seat, $500 to sponsor a table of eight. VT