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EnergyCare ‘angels’ a blessing to low-income clients

Agency continues legacy of Sister Pat Kelley, CCVI, in helping low-income residents

Barry McIntyre sat in front of the window air conditioner, with the relief he felt evident in his smile.

"It's going to be great tonight," he said. "This is beautiful. It's a blessing."

The blessing was thanks to EnergyCare, a nonprofit agency that provides year-round energy-related services in St. Louis City and St. Louis County for low-income households, especially the elderly, disabled, chronically ill and young children.

McIntyre moved into the second floor of a two-unit, all-brick flat in south St. Louis a few days earlier and borrowed a fan that just circulated the hot air. He sat outside to catch a breeze before EnergyCare staff members Justine Collum and Jana Ngugi arrived with the air conditioner.

The temperature rose to 91 degrees that day, July 14. It reached 100 degrees just two days earlier and was forecast to hit 100 with high humidity again the next week. McIntyre, a retired theater assistant manager and retail worker, was surprised to see the quick response to a request through the Five Star Senior Center for help in keeping cool.

EnergyCare is celebrating the legacy of its founder, Sister Pat Kelley, CCVI, in 2017. She sought to provide services that help vulnerable people stay safe and warm in the cold St. Louis winters and cool in the brutally hot summers. This year would have been her 80th birthday. After she was murdered in her office in 1987, EnergyCare was led by her brother, Dennis Kelley, until his retirement in 2014.

Since its inception, EnergyCare has served 53,000 people in 23,000 households, with some of the client referrals coming from Cardinal Ritter Senior Services. EnergyCare services have prevented illness, hospitalizations and even deaths from extreme weather since 1983. In 2016, 18 percent more people sought the agency's assistance compared to the previous year.

The weatherization efforts by volunteer groups are especially rewarding, according to executive director Tim O'Dea. One house can be completed in a couple hours, "and you can feel how much better the temperature in the house," he said. "You can make a big difference in someone's life."

Comfort isn't the only consideration. "It's about people's health and safety," O'Dea said. "Sister Pat's goal lives on — to prevent vulnerable, elderly people from dying because they couldn't afford the means to stay safe from the elements."

Volunteer groups include Catholic churches and schools such as Incarnate Word Academy, which also conducts a blanket drive, assembles a newsletter and hosts a trivia night for EnergyCare. For the 2016-17 Home Weatherization and Home Repair Program, EnergyCare anticipates hosting around 400 volunteers to provide about 1,400 hours and weatherize more than 100 homes. The 2015-16 weatherization groups included Emerson, Ameren, St. Louis University, Washington University, Villa Duchesne and others.

Volunteers apply vinyl to windows to create an air barrier, caulk around windows and apply weather stripping to doors. Generally groups of 8-12 volunteers go to a client's home, supervised by one of EnergyCare's service providers. EnergyCare staff visits each home to determine their needs and eligibility.

Low-income people often live in energy-inefficient, poorly insulated homes and spend a much higher proportion of their limited income on utility bills. "They get trapped in a cycle of owing money to utility companies and it's hard to get out of that, especially when the cold air is pouring into your house," O'Dea said.

Helping with utility bills provides stability by keeping families in their homes and children from moving from school to school. Utility shut-offs sometimes result in frozen pipes in the winter, making homes uninhabitable.

In addition to the weatherization, EnergyCare — which has a staff of five — uses grant money to replace deteriorated windows and doors. Donations and grants also are used for utility assistance, air conditioners, space heaters and smoke detectors, furnace repairs and more.

O'Dea credits Sister Pat for her foresight. "She saw people suffering and created a niche for helping people stay warm and stay cool," he said. "A lot of social service agencies try to do everything, and it ends up getting watered down. So we've stayed true to that niche she created."

The Angels in Action Society is a group of EnergyCare's donors who give annual gifts of $250 or more. Collum, development director at EnergyCare, considers it an appropriate name. After being helped, "so many of our clients will say, 'God sent me angels,'" she said. 

Sister Pat's legacy

Sister Pat Kelley entered the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word after graduating from Incarnate Word Academy in St. Louis in 1955.

Sister Pat worked as a teacher, vocational counselor and volunteer probation and parole officer as well as in hospitals and in pastoral service. After 25 years of religious life, she returned from a retreat determined to devote the rest of her life to helping the poor and elderly.

In March 1981 she was selected to administer a one-year $20,000 grant from the National Council of Senior Citizens for a "Missouri Project Energycare" to assist low- and fixed-income elderly with energy-related needs.

When the grant ended in 1982, and following a severe winter blizzard and a fatal heat wave, she founded Missouri Energycare, Inc. as an independent nonprofit organization. She also founded Dollar-Help in partnership with Laclede Gas Co. and a national effort to advocate for vulnerable households needing energy assistance, the National Fuel Funds Network.

On Sept. 28, 1987, Sister Pat was found murdered in her office. Called the "Mother Teresa of St. Louis" by Archbishop John L. May, she was remembered as a deeply compassionate, optimistic hard-worker.

Arletta Williams worked with Sister Pat as a member of Immaculate Conception-St. Henry Parish, as an outreach worker at Christ Lutheran Church and as a neighborhood advocate. Sister Pat "wanted to help everyone," Williams said, recalling that Sister Pat installed weatherproofing on windows herself until Williams suggested writing a grant proposal to pay young people in an afterschool and job-training program.

Sister Pat's skills included persuading others to help her cause. "Everybody was crazy about her," Williams said.

Each year the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition gives the Sister Pat Kelley Award to an advocate who has increased public awareness of low-income energy issues.

Following her death, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word created a fund named for Sister Pat with proceeds helping the poor of St. Louis. 

>> To help

The income of the average client of EnergyCare is 66 percent of the federal poverty line — less than $150 a week for a person living alone.

• 84 percent are chronically ill and/or disabled

• 18 percent are homebound

• 28 percent previously have been homeless

• 20 percent have been hospitalized for heat exposure

• 16 percent have been hospitalized for cold exposure

Half of the funding for EnergyCare comes from individual donations and the rest from grants. To help:

• Mail a tax-deductible donation to EnergyCare, P.O. Box 63172, Saint Louis, MO 63163-9966.

• Call (314) 773-5968, ext. 23, to make a credit card donation over the phone or for information.

• Donate online at www.stlouisreview.com/jl4.

See a video on EnergyCare from STL Live at www.stlouisreview.com/jlj. 

>> EnergyCare services


• Provides blankets, electric blankets and electric heaters to families without heat in their homes

• Weatherizes homes to block out drafts and lock in warm air – reducing energy use and keeping the home warmer

• Arranges emergency furnace repairs for senior home owners


• Provides energy-efficient, one-room air conditioners to vulnerable people

• Services people's existing window air conditioning units


• Improves the insulation of vulnerable clients' homes

• Provides emergency utility assistance payments that keep the heat/cooling on

• Offers information, advice and referrals 


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