FARMINGTON – Completing his homework under a kerosene lamp or in front of a wood burning stove, Mylo Fowler graduated high school almost 20 years ago on the Navajo Nation near Steamboat, Arizona. When Fowler, now a photographer, returned to the Navajo Nation, he found the circumstances for many students hadn’t changed.
“The exact same things I was doing as a kid were almost identical to what many of them were still doing,” he said about the lack of electricity and running water in many parts of the reservation.
Since 2015, Fowler, who now lives in Salt Lake City, has partnered with solar energy companies like Goal Zero to install off-grid solar kits in more than 100 households on the Navajo Nation. When the coronavirus pandemic hit the western United States, shuttering schools and implementing remote learning, he knew many students on the Navajo Nation would be affected by the school closures.
“When the virus hit, I was really concerned with a lot of the youth,” he said. “It’s not easy for them to get on Zoom, do conference calls and stay plugged in.”
He said one principal told him it was difficult to even make a simple phone call to most of his students because of the lack of cell reception in the area. Fowler saw an opportunity to provide much-needed supplies and support to students on the reservation by creating remote learning education kits with his partnerships with companies like Goal Zero and Swinerton Renewable Energy and the national nonprofit The Heart of America Foundation.
Fowler estimates in the last 1½ months they have assembled and delivered more than 5,000 remote learning kits to schools on the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute and Hopi reservations. The learning-from-home kits for students in pre-kindergarten to 12th grade include a solar light, grade-appropriate books, and arts and school supplies. Each kit also has a “stay safe” packet with hand sanitizer, masks and coronavirus-prevention information.
With remote locations and lack of internet and television, the printed coronavirus information can be crucial for families, said Jill Hardy Heath, president and CEO of The Heart of America Foundation. The nonprofit has partnered with Fowler and others to provide the remote learning kits to schools on the reservation.
The kits have been sent out in three phases in three locations. Last week, Fowler and volunteers from New Mexico United, the state’s professional soccer team, assembled more than 1,200 kits for nine schools and health centers in the eastern part of the Navajo Nation, including school districts surrounding Gallup, New Mexico.
The Navajo Nation continues to be one of areas hardest hit by the coronavirus in the country, a problem exacerbated by underlying health issues on the reservation. On Tuesday, it reported 6,150 total COVID-19 cases and 285 deaths related to the coronavirus, according to the Navajo Department of Health and partner organizations. The health organizations are also reporting 32,108 negative tests.
While the coronavirus might have highlighted the lack of clean water and electricity on the Navajo Nation, Fowler said it is not a new struggle.
“Whether COVID hit or not, the reality is none of their needs would be any different,” Fowler said. “You still have a bunch of kids out there without running water, without electricity, unable to continue their education at home. The limitations have only gotten more limited.”
With the focus on personal protective equipment and sanitation needs, Fowler said he was not aware of an organization focused on the needs of youths and the distance-learning challenges on the Navajo Nation.
The American Public Power Association estimates that of the 55,000 homes on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, about 15,000 homes do not have electricity. They account for 75% of the unelectrified households in the United States, according to the association.
“It’s not just about getting them through COVID,” Heath said. “Many of these students will be out of school, without one-to-one instruction for six to eight months, if not longer.”
In addition to pushing to distribute a kit to every student on the Navajo Nation, she said the nonprofit hopes to continue its work to create more opportunities for spaces like technology and information centers in schools.
Heath said she’s proud the nonprofit has been able to reach so much of the Navajo Nation in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico in a relatively short time frame. She added Colorado is on the list, but there’s more work to be done with the Navajo and Pueblos in New Mexico in the next phase of donations. The nonprofit continues to accept donations online to fund the remote learning kits. A fourth phase of kit deliveries is planned within the next month.
At a recent delivery on the Hopi reservation, Fowler said a principal said something that stuck with him: “The learning doesn’t stop just because school stops.”
“That hit home for me,” he said. “We want to inspire the youth to know they can learn.”