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Let there be light! Solar panels to provide electricity for rural Navajo families

The team works Tuesday on Danielle Roy’s house, which sits 26 miles southwest of Shiprock and 8 miles from the Arizona line. Rachel Brown, McKinney Vento liaison, said the bus routes this far out typically pick up students at the main road, but Roy takes her kids to school. (Brad Ryan/Special to Tri-City Record)
Residences, ranging from a single child to multiple, may not have running water as well

In partnership with Heart of America and Central Consolidated School District, 24 families from Shiprock to Naschitti will receive electricity from installed solar panels at their residences.

The families are under the McKinney Vento program, an initiative to serve students who qualify as homeless.

Recent data show 750 students fit the federal definition of homeless, according to Elfreda Harvey, social and safety net coordinator. That definition includes a condition in which an individual or family lacks a fixed, regular, nighttime residence or is at imminent risk of losing their housing.

On Monday, California Polytechnic State University students, Central Consolidated administration and Heart of America staff joined together at the district office for introductions, background and cultural teachings before setting out to install the panels.

“You're going see a lot of things this week with our families, and you're going to experience a lot of things with our families that you probably haven't seen or experienced before,” Harvey said, “So I'll ask that you keep an open mindset.”

Before arriving on the reservation, a cultural team researched the Navajo Nation to provide the team with knowledge about the region.

Gina Chun, senior in construction management, was a part of the team that researched the political structure and history of the Navajo Nation.

Chun said in her research that the impact of the pandemic was a main focal point and that the team could go onto the land with that in mind.

However, on a second trip, Chun said her research meant very little compared with the knowledge gained by spending time with the community.

On Tuesday, vehicles were loaded with supplies and snow began to fall as the team partook in a smudging led by Berlinda Begay, bilingual multicultural education coordinator.

Heart of America, California Polytechnic State University students, and Central Consolidated administration stand together on March 25 at the Central Consolidated district office before departing for the day to install panels at residences. (Brad Ryan/Special to Tri-City Record)
The solar team

In Monday’s preparation, the team spread across the A Gym in Shiprock to begin with stretches before digging into the parts of the panels.

Spread across the gym, Cal Poly students worked together to compile sets that included four panels, two lights, one battery and a solar-powered lantern.

Each panel generates 100 watts, a total of 400 watts in each set. The battery holds 1,000 watts.

Mylo Fowler of Heart of America explained the battery is also portable once charged. Families have taken the battery to family events including cultural milestones, he said.

Thus far, Heart of America has connected 200 homes with solar power, according to Fowler. The goal is to power every home on the reservation with solar energy.

Solv Energy and Nextraker were trip sponsors, but students also raised funds for the trip. The trip would take place during their spring break.

While students prepped sets a team also compiled bags of school supplies and games for the families.

During the pandemic, 10,000 bags were distributed by Heart of America, Fowler said.

Fowler also spoke to an encounter that impacted him. A grandmother living in Shiprock with her grandchildren had no electricity and was burying insulin in the ground with rocks to keep the medicine cold.

After receiving the solar panels, the family made jello using a fridge gifted to them. Fowler described it as game changing.

Students from California Polytechnic State University prepare tools and supplies for the panel work on March 25 at the A Gym in Shiprock. (Brad Ryan/Special to Tri-City Record)

Dana Craighead, senior in construction management, spoke to the education value she sees in the project.

“I find a lot of value in the community aspect of construction,” she said.

Craighead said she wanted to pursue a senior project that aligned with her interest in nonprofit work.

Craighead would take part in educating students about solar energy in an after-school lesson at the Kirtland Youth Association. She previously was the construction management lead before stepping into the project lead position.

“I wanted to go into something that would make a lasting impact,” Chun said.

The experience has taught Chun how to work as a team and work with systems, she said.

Chun spoke to the culture shock of entering a community like the Navajo Nation; however, the trip highlights the passion of education on both sides and builds compassion from the team.

Joe Cleary, assistant professor of construction management, watches student William Bellios drill a solar panel to Danielle Roy’s house roof on March 26. (Brad Ryan/Special to Tri-City Record)

Joe Cleary, assistant professor of construction management, said the hardest part of the trip was seeing the students struggle in the work, but that is where the learning happens.

“And actually, by the end of these trips, they're really good at this,” he said.

Heart of America has been working on the Navajo Nation for four years, and Central Consolidated is the sixth school district to receive solar energy, said Rachael Chandler of Nextracker.

“As we've shared, we are here because we are an organization that believes in educational equity,” she said “And if students don't have power, students have a barrier to success.”

Danielle Roy stands with her mother, Roselyn, as Mylo Fowler, switches the light on in the newly powered house. Roy started renovations to her house two years ago and chose the green paint to honor her brother, who died of COVID-19 on St. Patrick’s Day. (Brad Ryan/Special to Tri-City Record)
An immediate yes

At the beginning of the school year, Danielle Roy heard of the solar opportunity that would bring electricity to her Mitten Rock home.

Starting renovations two years ago, the house sits on land that has seen generations of family including Roy’s two children in the Central Consolidated district.

Rachel Brown, McKinney Vento liaison, spoke with Roy about the program, and not too long after, the team was at her doorstep on Tuesday, panels in tow.

Brown said she had pulled applications of families in the program that had specified the absence of electricity in the home.

From there, Brown contacted those families to offer the solar program, resulting in the number of selected residences.

“I know there’s more,” she said.

Brown made it a point to mention some families choose to live without electricity or running water because of the cultural significance in living aligned to Diné ancestors.

“I got to respect them on that,” she said.

Brown recalled the conversation with Roy being an immediate yes.

Roy shared that the district has been resourceful for her family in providing clothes.

With the panels installed, Roy said the electricity will benefit her family by providing light at night.

Roy did not share the news with her sons but was able to pick out some items for them including Lego, a board game and books that they would come home to.

Roy chooses from a box of items including books, games and activities for students that was gifted by Heart of America after having the solar panels installed at her residence on March 26. (Brad Ryan/Special to Tri-City Record)