Building Community With the Navajo Nation

Utah Rotary Leads Rehabilitation of Unused Building to Be Used As a Community Center

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As I begin, let me say that as a participant and member of the organizing committee for the project described in this post, I am uncomfortable as a journalist writing about it at all. That said, as I write about others doing good in the world, I believe it is essential for me to do my best to walk the talk. When I do, sometimes I need to talk about the walk and what it means to me personally.

The sun rises late near the end of October in the Southern Utah desert that is part of the Navajo Nation. Led by Utah Rotary, a group of volunteers gathered in the crisp morning air for a hot breakfast on October 28. Most stayed, with others joining, through a fun Trunk or Treat event with the local children on Saturday, October 30. In between, an unused and dilapidated building was updated and converted into a community center.

Built in 1975 as a movie theater for the Atlas Uranium Mine company town where the Navajo did the labor, the building ended up in the hands of the Federal Government after the mine closed. For about 15 years, beginning around the mid-1990s, the Federal Government used it as a head start facility. That is how the building has been known for the past 25 years or so.

When a bureaucratic snafu led to closing the head start program on Native American land, the Federal Government sold the Utah buildings to the San Juan Foundation, a small nonprofit operating in Utah’s part of the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The Foundation, led by Lisa Carr, operated after-school programs in the building for several years. Ultimately, the building was shuttered about four years ago, and the building has been unused since.

When the pandemic began, the Navajo Nation was among the most impacted in the country. Numbers were devastating as in New York, but resources on the reservation were nothing like New York’s. A wide variety of community members and organizations provided emergency support, among them Utah Rotary Clubs.

Paul Summers organized a collaborative effort among Utah Rotarians to provide ongoing support to Native American Tribes around the state. The Navajo represent the largest group—by far. District Governor Linda Sappington led Utah Rotary from July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021, during the worst of COVID-19. She sought to create a “bigger, bolder” service project amidst all that suffering but bringing people together was fraught. The two combined their efforts for a late 2020-21 service project on the Navajo Nation.

The building project involved numerous advance trips to the site for Paul and other volunteers. As the scope of the work became clear, they learned that to do the job, someone would have to visit to do electrical work to get power back on and lighting working before the rest of the work could begin. Rotarian Bob May led that effort and completed the electrical updates.

Similarly, the plumbing system needed so much work that it couldn’t be completed in a weekend, so Rotarian Stu Richardson led an advance team to start that work. Stu and his team finished the plumbing with the rest of the project.

During the project, we had a variety of interactions with Native Americans to ensure that volunteers left with a greater understanding for the people they sought to help. A professional musician who travels the country as a performer, Travis Mose stopped by with a partner to perform an impromptu afternoon concert. (I used his late brother’s recorded music with Travis’s permission in the video above.) One evening, Rotary hired a group of Navajo women to prepare Navajo fry bread for Navajo Tacos. Another evening, a member of a nearby Ute Tribe visited to share stories with the volunteers. Finally, on the last evening of the project, Linda planned a Trunk-or-Treat evening. Dozens of children came, eagerly gathering candy, toys, books and oral hygiene projects from the volunteers and participating neighbors.

The building project included new flooring for much of the building, paint over virtually every wall inside and out, new signs, playground repairs, a well-stocked children’s library, a bit of landscaping, new ceiling tiles throughout, and repairs to the ball field and the remaining dugout.

One of the most remarkable elements of the project was new cabinets, counters and shelving in the kitchen, bathrooms and library. Cabinet-maker and Rotarian Paul Cozzens led this effort. He got his suppliers to donate the materials, and he and his friends from Rotary assembled and installed them.

Respite is something I’ve learned that volunteers genuinely need. With a plentiful supply of labor, it was easy to encourage the volunteers to explore the region near Halchita, including Bears Ears National Monument (recently restored to its original size), Natural Bridges National Monument, Goosenecks State Park and the world-famous Monument Valley. I included a few of those photos in the video.

While I frequently chatted with members of the Tribe, I was careful not to solicit feedback on the project from them. I didn’t want to be the grandparent begging for appreciation for a token gift. Still, there is evidence that the locals appreciated the project. Several respected members of the community visited and participated. Had I been an independent journalist and not a project organizer, I would undoubtedly have drilled down on the question.

A computer lab was painted and prepared for a soon-to-arrive gigabit fiber internet connection. That should arrive any day. We saw the line being laid about ten miles from Halchita. Utah Rotary is arranging with the San Juan Foundation to provide computers once the internet connection is available.

The Foundation has obtained a grant to employ five people at the community center. The skills required appear to be available in Halchita among the locals, providing an economic boost to the tiny community where there are no apparent jobs. The plan is to transfer the title to the building to the Navajo Nation when it can pick up the operating costs. Lisa Carr said she hopes that will be within three years.

The project, if I’m allowed to judge, was a big success. Having undertaken so much, in most aspects, it seems the group met or exceeded expectations. Paul Summers, the project leader, worked something approaching full-time on the project for months. His organizational plan was essentially to give people lots of responsibility and count on them to live up to expectations. No one let him down.

An unused building was left humming with activity, ready to serve a new generation of Navajo families.

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