Parishioners at First United Methodist Church came together a couple years ago to form a church-based nonprofit with the mission of providing solar lighting systems to impoverished families.
The idea was a borrowed one. It came from Lighting for Literacy, a Silicon Valley charity started by Douglas McNeil, an engineer for a high-tech firm, with the idea of providing lighting to impoverished families in Mexico and India.
Driving through a dark night in Monument Valley, Norton Hindley, one of the Durango church’s parishioners who formed the local Lighting for Literacy group at the church, had an epiphany: a Lighting for Literacy campaign for children on the Navajo Nation.
Unfortunately, Hindley, passed away soon after meeting McNeil, and the idea of a church mission to help impoverished Navajo families receive lighting systems seemingly stalled.
But Skip Warner, a retired executive who had worked at General Electric, moved to Durango and joined the First United Methodist Church. While working with GE, he had partnered with the Navajo Nation while GE worked with the tribe to clean water tainted by tailings from uranium mining.
Warner heard about the nascent efforts to provide solar lighting systems to isolated Navajo families, and he picked up the cause, aided by contacts from his work on the reservation.
So was born Native Hope Solar, the First United Methodist Church group that provided solar lighting systems to almost 100 homes in the Chinle area last winter.
The group began by trying to identify families that could benefit from solar lighting, but that proved challenging until Warner and Phil Harrison, president of the Red Rock Chapter of the Navajo Nation, were interviewed on the radio by KNDN-AM and KNDN-FM in Farmington.
“The response was almost immediate,” Warner said. “Before we left the building, Phil started getting phone calls from families who wanted to participate. It was mostly from the grandmothers, who had grandchildren reading by kerosene or candlelight.”
Church connections brought together the team that would install almost 100 solar lighting systems in hogans and homes in the Chinle Chapter during the snowy winter of 2018-19.
First United parishioner Brody Guion, owner of Scott’s Pro-Lawn in Durango, heard about Native Hope Solar and figured he could help: One of his employees, Melton Tom, was skilled in electronics and construction, and he was a member of the tribe raised on the Navajo Nation.
Guion became project manager for Native Hope Solar, and Tom became the head installer. In addition, Tom is the lead trainer for the 15 students, mostly from Fort Lewis College, who help assemble the solar lighting units.
For Tom and the Navajo families, the experience was emotionally rewarding.
“People were surprised. They were amazed that there were people out there who cared,” Tom said. “Some of them actually cried. They said, ‘Hey, thank you.’ It just touches you.”
According to the U.S. Census, the area around Tsaile, Arizona, one of the first Native Hope Solar missions, has a poverty rate of 72.3% for those younger than 18 and a 70% poverty rate for those 65 or older. For families in Tsaile, 59.7% are below the poverty line.
“A lot of people don’t know how the poorest part of the Navajo community lives,” Guion said. They’re living out of sheds made out of plywood or particle board with dirt floors, no insulation, no running water”.
The experience in Tsaile led Native Hope Solar organizers to expand their mission in remote homes.
“Melton would send back pictures of an installation, and everybody would be wearing coats inside. The houses were cold. They didn’t have heat. Most didn’t have insulation,” Guion said. “We realized we have to do more to help.”
Native Hope Solar now provides coats, winter clothing and firewood to isolated families in the Chinle Chapter.
Financially, Native Hope Solar has enough funding to provide 100 more solar lighting units, which were designed by Glenn Bultman, an electrical engineer and another parishioner at First United Methodist.
This season, trips to the Navajo Nation will include increased deliveries of firewood and clothing.
Long term, Warner said Native Hope Solar hopes to transition to a program run by Navajo students in their teens and 20s – with the students eventually in charge of assembling, installing and managing the Native Hope Solar operation.
The No. 1 goal of the program now is to enhance the quality of life among the most isolated families living in the Navajo Nation, starting with the Chinle Chapter, Warner said.
Native Hope Solar also hopes to enhance tribal energy sovereignty and develop a sustainable jobs program for Navajo youths.
All three goals will be reached when Navajos run the entire Native Hope Solar program, Warner said.
Guion said the need remains high for Native Hope Solar’s mission, and increasing ties with communities and families in the Navajo Nation will increase its effectiveness and build trust in the vast reservation.
“We’re serving only one chapter. There are seven chapters in the Navajo Nation. We’re only scratching the surface,” he said.