In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Tarrant County newsmakers, Shakita Johnson of United Way of Tarrant County explains the demand behind the organization’s Beat the Heat donation drive. Johnson serves as the executive president of the Area Agency on Aging for United Way of Tarrant County. 

The nonprofit is accepting new and gently used fans and small air conditioning units from now through Sept. 22. Although the drive is focused on helping seniors and adults with disabilities, anyone who lives in Tarrant County may receive a donated fan or AC unit — one per household. Interested residents can call the Aging and Disability Resource Center at 1-888-730-2372 for more information. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Haley Samsel: Could you tell me about your role at the Area Agency on Aging?

Shakita Johnson: My role is the executive director of the Area Agency on Aging for Tarrant County, and I’m also vice president of community investment with United Way. I’ve been a part of the organization now for a little bit over a year. Our role and our mission is to provide vital services to seniors, older adults and their loved ones. I like to tell everyone because people are always curious about the role. We’re the aging arm of United Way. So when there’s an initiative that they want to support older adults, that’s usually through the Area Agency on Aging.

I was an administrative law judge right before joining the Area Agency on Aging. My background is in social work and long-term care. I was serving as an administrative law judge hearing health care cases or cases that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission took against different health care entities. But when COVID came on in 2019, and (I saw) really the devastation that it was causing amongst our seniors and in our nursing facilities, I just thought: Man, I gotta get back. I gotta get back to aging services. I have to get back to this population that is just so dear to me. 

Samsel: What are the core areas that the Area Agency on Aging focuses on? 

Johnson: We are a very broad organization. The Area Agency on Aging is a part of what’s called the Aging Network, which was established in 1965 by the Older Americans Act. And so we are one of over 600 agencies across the country. There’s 28 in the state of Texas. And we are the only one in Texas that is a part of the United Way system, the United Way organization. 

We provide a broad range of services. We provide direct services in that we provide minor home modifications, so that’s grab bars and door-widening for medical equipment like wheelchairs, walkers and continence supplies. We do that directly. But then we also use our funding to support other organizations, for instance, Meals on Wheels is a big recipient for us because they do an excellent job at meeting the nutrition needs of our seniors. And so hey, we do it all. I like to tell people what we don’t do when it comes to serving our seniors. We are really wanting to make sure that we’re in a position to help seniors maintain their independence for as long as possible. And we also want to help caregivers; we understand that we have to help those who are helping older adults.

Samsel: I’m talking to you on an extremely hot day in North Texas – just like every day, it seems. How did y’all decide that you were going to run the Beat the Heat initiative out of the Area Agency on Aging? 

How to donate

  • Fans can be ordered online and shipped directly to United Way of Tarrant County’s offices at 1500 N. Main Street, Suite 200, Fort Worth, TX 76164.
  • An Amazon Wishlist is available to shop from and ship directly to their office.
  • Monetary donations can be made at United Way’s website. Include “Beat the Heat” in the notes section.

Johnson: What is so interesting is that we started receiving an uptick in calls requesting assistance for AC units. But our organization really was able to mobilize when we received a call from Samson Park Fire Department. A lot of their calls were heat-related calls. They reached out to our organization United Way and said: Are there any resources for this? Is this something you guys can assist us with? And so internally, we discussed it, we mobilized and Beat the Heat was born. We put out the call to the community and they’ve responded.

Samsel: What has the response been like so far, and what are some of the needs that you’re still trying to meet? 

Johnson: The response so far has been great. I mean, we’re getting lots of calls about it. We’re receiving lots of donations. Now, of course, we always have room and capacity for more. The drive is mainly focused on collecting fans: box fans, oscillating fans, tower fans and AC units, AC window units, because it’s necessary, it is truly necessary. A majority of our donations to date have been fans. We have received 30, 40, 50 or so AC units (and) the most in demand is AC units. So when people call and they request assistance, it seems like most prefer a window unit over a fan.

Samsel: Were people calling you and being like: I have not been able to find anywhere else to get this kind of help?

Johnson: People were calling and saying one: I don’t have any AC, I don’t have any AC and I need help. The Beat the Heat drive has been very well promoted across the county, and so we’re seeing a lot of response from that. That’s how we’ve gotten a lot of our calls so far: from the marketing campaigns that we’ve done. But we also received calls through our aging and disability resource center. That is another call center that the Area Agency on Aging manages and so citizens call and say: Hey, I need assistance. I heard you guys are offering fans, I need help.”

You know what else is so interesting is that our center assists with our utility payments. We’re also getting calls for individuals who are having very, very high electricity bills because of that increase. That also provides a gateway into having a discussion like: Hey, do you need AC? Do you need fans? What’s going on? 

Samsel: I know there’s some specific concerns when it comes to older adults and heat exposure, and how that can really affect them differently than young people. What are some of the concerns there?

Johnson: The high temps that we’ve been seeing here recently, they’re dangerous for anyone at this rate of being out for any prolonged period of time. All of us are at risk of some sort of injury related to heat exposure. But the big challenge that people may not necessarily always think about is our seniors are especially vulnerable, seniors and those adults with disabilities, because they have conditions. Oftentimes there are medical conditions that are exacerbated by exposure to these extreme temps. And so it is doubly dangerous for our seniors.

Samsel: Was there anything else you wanted people to know about the Beat the Heat drive and this initiative? 

Johnson: We want to let everyone know that it’s super easy to participate. So if you want to donate, don’t feel like you have to go out shopping and drive it to our office. We have an Amazon wishlist that is set up, so you can just go on that wish list, order an item and have it sent directly to our office, and so we will get it and we will get it distributed. 

For those who want to receive a fan, that’s also very easy. Just call our office. You can call our aging and disability resource center, or you can call our volunteer coordinator. That information is on our flier. And then also we’re distributing those items to other organizations. We’re partnering with the food bank, MedStar, Meals on Wheels, Mission Arlington and a variety of other nonprofits who also serve those who might be calling for assistance. So if you want to participate or donate, we can make it happen for you. 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Haley Samsel

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She previously covered the environment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She grew up in Plano and graduated from American University,...