With its sweeping vistas, dramatic formations in places such as Monument Valley and ruins and relics of Four Corners residents long vanished, the Navajo Reservation is a beautiful place. But the lives of many of its residents, who live in isolation without many of the comforts most of us take for granted, can be difficult at best.
One thing it has in plentiful supply is sunshine.
“We were planning a solar light project for Nepal when Rick (LeGrand) said, ‘It’s so great we do international projects, but there are people right here who have needs, too,’” said Durango Daybreak Rotary Club member Nancy Lauro. “We usually work here in La Plata County, but we don’t have to look at geography as political boundaries. The Navajo are our neighbors, too.”
It took a little persistence on LeGrand’s part to convince the club’s Community Service Committee to take a look, but when they did, what they found astonished them.
Third World conditions
There are more than 69,000 households in the Navajo Nation, and those in rural areas have no access to basic utilities. The statistics tell the broad story:
16,000 homes do not have electricity.
It can cost up to $27,000 per mile to install electricity lines, which isn’t economically feasible for a few homes 20 to 30 miles away from the nearest line.
Three of five homes lack telephones.
The unemployment rate is 44 percent.
Median family annual income is $11,885.
89 percent of rural homes rely solely on woodstoves for heat.
55 percent of rural homes lack complete kitchen facilities.
51 percent of rural homes lack complete plumbing facilities.
“OK, we’re interested and want to help, what do we do?” Lauro said the committee asked.
One club member, B.J. Boucher, had volunteered with the Adopt-an-Elder Program for many years, and she felt club members needed to truly understand the need and learn about the culture before diving in.
“A lot of people went on food runs,” Boucher said. “They met a lot of elders, mostly weavers or craftspeople. They identified a need for light, a significant need that would really improve lifestyles.”
For its Nepal project, the club had found a $200 solar light kit that was designed in Sweden. It’s durable, with lithium batteries that should last 12 years, with light-emitting diode bulbs that should be good for five years. It features three individual lights that also can be detached for use as flashlights.
The kit also was a good fit for the Navajo venture. During a pilot project on 12 residences near Second Mesa in June, they found another need.
“They were running their trucks and burning through a lot of gas to recharge their cellphones,” Joe Choquette said. “There’s an easy attachment for the solar kit that will allow them to recharge their phones with the solar panel, too.”
Not only did they include the cords for cellphone charging in their new installations, they returned to the pilot project homes to deliver them, too.
‘Like charity crack’
Rotary runs on a fiscal year that begins July 1. Determined to proceed with the solar light project in a larger way, the club applied for matching grants for 2013-14 through District 5470, which covers western and southern Colorado, and the Rotary International Foundation. It also convinced the Rotary Club of Durango to join, giving it more leverage for the grants.
Now, about 17 people from both local clubs have done two full-scale installations, with more planned in the spring. The remoteness of the homes means a team of four is lucky to get four or five solar lights installed a day.
“It’s not rural like Durango West rural,” Lauro said. “It can take an hour to get to each home from a paved road. It definitely takes four-wheel-drive. We use local guides because there are no road signs, no addresses, no way of knowing where you’re going beyond ‘Turn here.’”
Paul and Jackie Beasley, who own Tile and Light Art of Durango, are not acting only as sponsors for the project – they’ve gone out on the two installation runs this fall.
“It’s so beautiful, and we’re going places where you couldn’t imagine going on your own,” Paul Beasley said. “We’re getting back what we’re giving and then some. Everybody should go out at least twice a year. It’s like charity crack.”
‘No more headaches’
Choosing which homes will get the lights requires the judgment of Solomon. The Rotarians are depending on social workers at the chapter houses in remote areas to identify either elders or families with school-aged children who most need them.
“We’re driving by homes and not stopping,” Paul Beasley said. “I asked, ‘Shouldn’t we be installing them there, too?’ The guide said, ‘We’re hoping you’ll do that home next year.’”
The Rotarians have heard countless stories about how the lights already have changed lives.
“Each and every home has its story,” Tim Guill said. “I talked to two little girls, Shonie and Shoshone Williams, near Navajo Mountain. Shonie said, ‘The lights are important to me because now I won’t get headaches.’”
Guill asked Shoshone what she meant.
“Shonie gets headaches when she has to do her homework by candlelight,” she said.
Walt Duhaime has installed the lights both in Nepal and on the reservation.
“No matter where you are, every person is so thankful, and you can tell they need it,” he said. “There are three lights, and one woman told us to put one light over her daughter’s desk and one over her son’s desk because they needed to study. Then the last one could go in her kitchen area.”
Many of the weavers wanted the lights near their looms, so they could work longer.
That has led the Rotarians to understand the lights may have a positive impact on many families’ financial situations as well as quality of life. Not only will they allow the craftspeople to increase their output, the families will be spending much less on batteries, kerosene, diesel and gasoline.
“We arrived to find one home locked,” LeGrand said. “The woman was off having a baby, but she was on the phone telling us where to put the lights.”
Boucher was interviewed for a story in The Rotarian, the club’s national publication, which ran in August. Not only has it drawn interest and money, but clubs near other tribal reservations with the same challenges are thinking about adopting the project for their neighbors.
In the meantime, Durango Daybreak Rotarians are planning their next installation trips in the spring, once the roads become passable again after the winter.
“That’s 45 down, 15,955 to go,” Lauro said. “The Navajo Nation is working on electrifying more homes, but there are some we can see will never have electricity.”
Bob Conrad said the project epitomizes Rotary’s mission of “Service Above Self.”
“This kind of project is really how Rotary works,” he said. “B.J.’s involvement with the elder project helped us learn what was needed. And I remember when Rick brought it up, the committee didn’t really understand it and didn’t get excited. It took Rick’s tenacity and commitment to make it work, but now we get it.”