Community Action Human Resources Agency Executive Director Mary Lou Rosales.

When people rally around each other to improve the quality of life for one person or a family, the whole community becomes better for it.

That belief is something Community Action Human Resources Agency has stood behind for the past 40 years.

CAHRA is a nonprofit agency that provides aid to families and individuals on limited incomes, aiming to address a broad spectrum of problems through housing, utility and nutritional assistance.

It’s an organization that has been around for decades, with the month of March marking its official 40th anniversary.

“It’s been a good 40 years,” said Mary Lou Rosales, executive director.

Over the years, CAHRA has helped hundreds of people in Pinal and Gila counties who have fallen on hard times and empowers them to chart new paths toward independence.

Those results were hard won, especially when factoring in the organization’s beginnings from unexpected circumstances.

In the 1970s, the Central Arizona Association of Governments (now Central Arizona Governments) oversaw and administered community action programs, which emerged in 1964 with passage of the federal Economic Opportunity Act.

The programs were designed to combat poverty through assistance to low-income communities. Under the supervision of CAAG, the community action department administered programs like weatherization assistance.

In December 1979, however, CAAG’s regional council made the decision to discontinue its supervision of community action programs.

For Rosales, who was employed as part of CAAG’s community action agency, the move was completely unexpected. But from the decision, an entirely different agency would blossom — a project set into motion by William “Bill” Flores, who served as mayor of Coolidge; Joel Belloc, a recent Eloy mayor; and William Eddings, a then-Casa Grande city councilman.

Together, those men were part of the CAAG Human Resource Committee, which made the decision to bid for the designation of a new community action agency for Pinal and Gila counties.

The group went before the Pinal County Board of Supervisors and was granted designation as a Pinal-Gila CAA in 1980. Not long after, the committee filed for incorporation under the name Community Action Human Resources Agency.

“I think they saw a future,” Rosales said. “I remember Bill Flores saying, ‘I can’t wait until we make it to a $1 million budget.’”

Four decades later, Flores’s estimate proved very much correct. In recent years, CAHRA has well exceeded that $1 million goal, with the nonprofit’s fiscal year 2021 budget amounting to a total over $4.3 million.

More than $730,000 of the budgeted amount comes from competitive funding sources such as grants.

Recently unemployed at the time of the agency’s founding, Rosales volunteered to help with the secretarial work. A few years into CAHRA’s existence, she was eventually brought on full time.

She was the first of several dedicated staff members to be hired in the subsequent years, with many of the current staff touting anywhere from six to 31 years as part of the organization. That includes Loretha Rushing, operations manager, who started at the nonprofit as a summer youth worker in 1990.

“They wouldn’t let me leave,” Rushing said with a laugh over a Zoom call.

But even after so many years, Rushing says the opportunity to help others has kept her dedicated to the work CAHRA does.

“There’s always some new funding and there’s always a new set of people to try to help,” she said. “I think it’s a different adventure every day. If it’s not a different client, then it’s a different scenario or family that needs help.”

And, over time, the nonprofit has changed.

The first grant the agency received shortly after it became a 501(C)(3) totaled $25,000. By comparison, CAHRA’s most recent batch of utility assistance funding tallied over $2 million.

In the beginning, CAHRA relied heavily upon whatever funding was available to community action programs. Much of that funding was derived from utility assistance and weatherization assistance programs, Rosales said.

Now, however, competitive grants also play a major role in helping the agency to expand what it offers.

CAHRA provides a wealth of assistance programs to area residents and their families who may be experiencing pressing times caused by a wide variety of circumstances.

They include things like utility assistance and weatherization — designed to help low-income individuals make their homes more energy efficient — but they also extend to programs that focus on family cohesiveness and self-reliance, which often comes in the form of case management.

As Rosales points out, different programs are needed more heavily at different times depending on local, economic and global events. The ongoing pandemic has underscored that, with the organization currently focusing more heavily on assistance in comparison to case management.

Many of the programs offered by CAHRA are continually developing and evolving to meet arising needs. One example, Rosales noted, was an initiative started in 2001 that enabled families to build their own homes during a time when the housing market was skyrocketing and purchasing a home outright wasn’t a viable option for many.

During the Great Recession, however, there was little need for the program; plummeting housing prices made it more practical to purchase a home than construct one.

More recently, CAHRA’s reach has widened to help the homeless through partnerships that resulted in initiatives like the CGHelps Homeless Resource Center.

Given how the pandemic has impacted the economy, there’s also billions of dollars in federal and statewide funding on the table to provide assistance to renters. CAHRA will likely receive a portion of that funding to help local renters in the region.

“I wish more people realized how much we do,” Rosales said. “What we get a lot is ‘I didn’t know about CAHRA.’ And one reason is that they haven’t needed us.”

Despite offering an abundance of programs that target different income brackets and age groups, an issue the nonprofit is constantly confronted with is that too often people assume that CAHRA can’t render assistance to them.

“A lot of times people think that (CAHRA’s services are) for very, very low-income people and (they’re) not going to qualify,” Rushing said. “But, you know, it depends what kind of funding is available and what they do qualify for.”

She recommends anyone who might need assistance to reach out to the agency directly to see if there is any help CAHRA can offer, even if they are uncertain they qualify.

“No question is the wrong question,” she said. “So they should always call and ask to see what we can do for them.”

One thing Rushing wants members of the public to understand, however, is that much like the Department of Economic Security, CAHRA requires specific documents to determine program eligibility. Without the right documents, no services may be rendered.

One important distinction, as Rosales points out, is that unlike some services offered by the Arizona Department of Economic Security, Community Action is not an entitlement program — which means that applying does not necessarily guarantee assistance.

That’s where partnerships with other local organizations can help fill in the gaps, especially when it comes to providing forms of assistance that are beyond the scope of what CAHRA provides.

CAHRA routinely teams up with local nonprofits and other organizations throughout Pinal to make sure that members in the community in need have access to a range of resources that can help them live more balanced, self-sufficient lives.

Today, those partnerships include organizations like First Things First, Against Abuse and the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, to name a few.

For the entirety of CAHRA’s team, helping others is what it all comes back to.

“I think in helping people it helps the whole community,” Rosales said. “It stabilizes families, and when families are stable they are more content and more willing and able to participate in community events. I see that as rewarding.” PW