Sue Smith started her first job at 12, but a stroke at 59 put her in a wheelchair for three years and left her unable to work. Her tiny budget made it tough to pay for A/C or heat and certainly didn’t allow her to replace the dying refrigerator she worried could eventually give her food poisoning.

Looking for help, the Safford resident contacted SouthEastern Arizona Community Unique Services, or SEACUS, which then referred her to the Southeastern Arizona Community Action Program, or SEACAP. Soon afterward, Smith had a new heating and cooling system, her windows and doors were sealed to prevent dust and drafty air from coming in and she received a new refrigerator.

The cost? Nothing.

“Life is different now. It’s far less stressful. I’m not afraid of how cold it’ll be tonight,” Smith said.

The program that Smith was able to tap into is SEACAP’s weatherization program, which assists low income people replace old heating and cooling equipment, old and broken refrigerators, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. It also helps people reduce the cost of their utilities by installing insulation and through other projects, said Claudia Uriarte, a lead case manager for SEACAP.

Single people, or families, who, annually, make at or below 200% of the federal poverty level are eligible to be helped by the program.

In Graham County, 31 households have been helped by SEACAP’s weatherization program in the past five fiscal years. Nine households in Greenlee County have also been helped by the program.

SEACAP also runs a utility assistance program that assists low income households pay past due utility bills and helps people make down payments on utility hookup fees.

Households making at or below 60% of the federal poverty level are eligible for the program.

In Graham County, 609 households have been assisted by SEACAP’s utility assistance program in the past five fiscal years. In Greenlee County, 61 families have been helped by the program in the same time frame.

All together, both programs allocated $744,403 of assistance in Graham County and $93,954 in Greenlee County in the past five fiscal years.

SEACAP is a non-profit that gets both state and federal funding to pay for their weatherization and utility assistance program.

“I really had no idea about what it encompassed. I’m very, very low income, I’m a widow, I have no family to help me. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but it was beyond my imagination how wonderful it is,” Smith said about the program.

Smith signed up for the program in August and a month later, SEACAP engineers started work on her house, she said.

“The professionalism and the attention to detail are first rate, it is not haphazard,” Smith said about SEACAP’s engineers. “They treated my home like I was the queen of England.”

Because of the work done, Smith said she’s more comfortable and less stressed, which she said contributed to her being able to walk by herself, without a walker, for the first time since she had her stroke in 2009.

“It has significantly improved the quality of my life, my health and my longevity. It’s phenomenal,” Smith said.

Smith, who described herself as “a missionary,” for SEACAP’s weatherization program, said she wants to encourage people who need help to apply for the program. The sign up process, she said, was done with great care and consideration and discretion.

Smith said she wants to especially encourage seniors on tight budgets who might not be able to pay to turn their air conditioning unit on during the summer to sign up for the program.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, 522 people died from “heat-related” reasons “where exposure to excessive natural heat is listed anywhere on the death record” in 2020. Of those 522 people, 313 died primarily because of excessive exposure to the heat, which is referred to as “heat-caused deaths.” That number is up significantly from 2019, where the department reported that 283 people died of “heat-related” reasons and 160 people died from “heat caused” excessive exposure.

“Of deaths among Arizona residents, 34 percent occurred in older adults over the age of 65,” the department states on its website. “Indoor heat exposure is a major contributor to heat-related deaths in older adults. According to Yip et al. (2008), one third of deaths during the 2005 heat wave in Arizona happened indoors; 81% of these fatalities occurred in older adults. The EPA states that elderly people spend 90% of their time indoors, therefore maintaining an appropriate indoor air temperature is important.”

“I think there’s a lack of information out there. I think the public needs to know it’s available,” Smith said about the program.

The program, which has been operating since 1976, has seen a significant amount of increase in people applying to receive assistance from it since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Uriarte said.

“That was probably one of our busiest times,” Uriarte said.

“They will help you in anyway they can,” Smith said about SEACAP. “This program can save lives.”

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