Every weekday, Alvin Thomas, 72, drives 12 miles from his home on Wrightsboro Road to the Bessie Thomas Community Center in Grovetown.
He carries his large-print, leather-bound Bible and sits down to read in a cushioned chair by the front door. He carefully turns the pages, often pausing to greet people as they come through the main entrance.
"Coming here breaks down the monotony of the day," Mr. Thomas said. "I come here to enjoy the fellowship, read a devotion (and) aggravate the ladies."
Mr. Thomas has another reason for his daily journey: to escape the oppressive summer heat.
He is one of many senior citizens who frequent the air-conditioned cooling centers open throughout the Augusta area. Although the centers are designed to give residents a break from the triple-digit temperatures of summer, people also are taking the opportunity to meet others, watch television and play bingo.
"The older you are, the tougher the heat is on you because the body is losing its natural ability to cool itself," said Pam Tucker, the director of Columbia County Emergency Services. "Young children and senior citizens are at the greatest risk."
In the 1980s, Columbia County established several small "heat shelters" in houses and businesses in different neighborhoods. The county now has two main cooling centers - one at Bessie Thomas Community Center and one at Patriots Park - that are helping to decrease the number of deaths caused by the intense summer heat and humidity.
"We saw a need and want to make people feel comfortable going into these places that have air conditioning," Mrs. Tucker said.
Cooling centers also are open in Richmond and Aiken counties.
For about 10 years, the city of Aiken has opened three of its recreation centers as heat shelters. The shelters are especially important for local seniors, said Lisa Hall, city recreation program supervisor.
Most visitors come to the center in midafternoon, when the temperatures are at their peak. The heat shelters also open when a heat advisory has been announced.
"We want to make sure that people are aware of the fact that they can come to one of our centers and basically just hang out in the cool air all day," Ms. Hall said.
Columbia County's centers were opened early this year instead of June 1, because of high temperatures that hit in mid-May.
Annie Dunn, 65, takes her lunch and drinks the ice water the Bessie Thomas center provides free to the summertime guests.
"I come here every day to eat lunch," Mrs. Dunn said. "I like being with these people."
Columbia County's centers will remain open through Sept. 30.
"The buildings that we use are open anyway, so there really is not any cost involved in it," Mrs. Tucker said. "The facility managers cooperate as a community service to allow people to come in and cool off. The main thing is letting people know that they are welcome to go here."
Tips to stay cool
Source: Columbia County Emergency Services
Staff Writer Valerie Rowell contributed to this article.
Reach Karen Etheridge at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 110 or firstname.lastname@example.org.