James Amer served in the U.S. Army during Word War II. During the Vietnam War he served on a civilian cargo ship and was injured when his ship was attacked in the harbor at Da Nang. Now he's retired, and it's the Las Vegas heat and his fixed income that threatens his survival.
Although Amer has lived in his current home for 15 years, his air conditioner has been there almost twice as long. When it stopped working, Amer couldn't afford to have it repaired.
"We were without air conditioning for quite a while," Amer said.
A neighbor referred him to the Community Action Program of the Plumbers, Pipefitters and Service Technicians Local No. 525, a group that is set up to help people such as Amer, seniors on a fixed income who can't afford repairs.
"Because they can't afford to get these fixed, they just have to go without unless we step in," said Richard Carrillo, business representative for Local No. 525. "A dripping faucet might result in a higher water bill, but air conditioning is a matter of survival."
Lou Salazar, residential business representative for Local No. 525, began the program 12 years ago. He stresses that his group takes care of minor repairs only, but that frequently a minor repair, such as fixing a leaky faucet will save a homeowner hundreds of dollars. The program is limited to homeowners. Renters must go through landlords for repairs.
Calls for the program go through Salazar, but air conditioning work mostly falls to Carrillo, who, in addition to his work with the union, owns his own air conditioning business and is on the Whitney Town Board. Although Carrillo tries to do as much of the work as he can himself, there are six other members of Local No. 525 who volunteer to do it, too. Carrillo didn't have to recruit anyone. They heard what he was doing and wanted to help.
"Nine times out of 10 it's just a small electrical problem. It's not even related to the refrigerant," Carrillo said. "Sometimes a wire might have broken loose and it's a quick fix. If it's something beyond a quick repair, we've been able to work with other charities including the Urban League, Help of Southern Nevada and Rebuild Nevada."
The job involves elements of electrical repair, mechanical repair and psychology. The repairmen are ready for all eventualities, including gently explaining to the owners how to avoid operator error.
The cost of repairs is covered by a fund all of the members of Local No. 525 contribute to with their union dues.
"It's something like a quarter of one percent," Carrillo said. "The members volunteer their time."
Like the rest of the valley, the economy is having an adverse effect on the program.
"We are backlogged, and we are running out of funds for the program," Salazar said, "When we had 2,500 union members putting money into the fund, we were OK, but we have over 1,000 members out of work now. If anyone wants to contribute money to the Plumbers, Pipefitters and Service Technicians Community Action Program, that would help a lot."
A neighbor led Amer to Local No. 525. Amer described the Trailer Estates he and his wife live in as a tight-knit community where everyone helps one another out.
"That's good because when you get older, like we are, you need that," Amer said. "We're both handicapped. My wife's in a wheelchair, and I can't see too well anymore. We're like this home; a few things are starting to wear out."
Many of the people Local No. 525 helps out are referred to them by Southwest Gas and the Las Vegas Valley Water District. Carrillo thinks of it as one of the valley's unintentionally best-kept secrets.
"We want to get the word out because it might be the difference between life and death for somebody," Carrillo said.