MERCED — Linda Higgins won't be cold this winter.
The 63-year-old Merced resident and her 77-year-old husband are one of 981 low-income families in Merced and Madera counties whose homes were winterized over the past three years thanks to a federal grant.
The $4.7 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant, which recently ran out, was used by the Merced County Community Action Agency to make homes more energy efficient, said Mike Polinko, weatherization program director.
The Higginses live in a mobile home that needed many improvements to make it more energy efficient.
As part of the program, they got a new front door to keep cold air out, a stove that doesn't leak gas, a furnace so they don't have to use small electric heaters, a microwave and two replacement windows -- among other weatherization upgrades.
"We had been praying a long time and God answered our prayers," Higgins said. "I don't know what we would be doing if they wouldn't have come in to do that for us. That was a blessing."
The need was clearly there. About 62 percent of the beneficiary families were from Merced County, and the other 38 percent were families in Madera County, Polinko said.
Despite the one-time grant running out, the program will continue to provide services with other regular sources of funding, Polinko said. There's typically a waiting list for the weatherization services, he said.
But priority is given to certain families. "We target households that have senior citizens, a disabled family member and little children -- children under 5," he said. "They get priority. We target those families first."
However, if there's a family with an emergency, they will be placed at the top of the list, he added.
The weatherization program doesn't only provide a warm place for families during the winter season, it also decreases their costs.
"I think it's extremely helpful by lowering their utility bills," Polinko said. "It frees up that money to spend in other necessities, such as food and medicine."
Higgins and her husband, Rodney, don't have to endure cold nights anymore and have seen savings, as well. Their utility bill has decreased to about $60 from more than $200, she said. And the couple didn't have to pay anything for the weatherization that was done to their mobile home.
"That program is absolutely fantastic -- it's wonderful," she said.
Ruth Johnson, 95, of Merced also received services from the program. For her, what helped the most was the replacement of two windows, including one in her bedroom.
It was easy for cold air to enter her house with her old windows, she said. "I think it's very, very helpful and I'm very pleased with it," Johnson said.
Mario Herrera, 36, of Atwater said the program also made a big difference for his family, including his wife and six children. Herrera and his wife work full time, but money is still tight.
The weatherization program allowed Herrera to replace his water heater and a back patio door to improve energy efficiency in his home.
The starting price for a water heater is about $600, said Herrera, who works at Home Depot. The starting price for a patio door is about $300 to $400, he said, not including installation costs.
"I wouldn't be able to afford it," he said. "I'm very thankful for the program and for whatever means it was funded by. I really hope other families that can't afford these kind of things can also benefit and I'm really thankful that this program exists."
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.