Bayfield residents Barb and John Wickman and Scot Trinklein have gone on two trips, most recently in mid-November.
Barb Wickman said an estimated 15,000 households on the reservation lack electricity. That means no lights, no well pump and no electric appliances, including refrigerator, unless they can afford a propane fridge or a generator.
The Navajo Lights Project is a hands-on service project of the four Rotary clubs in the county, Wickman said. She and Trinklein are members of the Pine River Centennial Rotary Club. The project was initiated by Daybreak Rotary Club member Joe Williams and his best friend, Teddy Lopez, who is Navajo and who provided information about homes that needed the lights.
Now, all three Durango clubs are involved, and this fall, the Pine River members. Two women who work for tribal social services served as guides to get volunteers to the homes that need lights, and they communicate with the residents to make sure the visits are OK with them, Wickman said.
“We all drive our own vehicles. We brought our own tools, battery packs and extra packs,” she said.
The solar light kits are made by a company in Sweden for people’s weekend cabins in the woods. They cost around $300 each. Each installation takes about two hours.
There is a small solar panel, about 16 square inches, Wickman said. It charges batteries attached to three lights, rather than charging master batteries like a more conventional off-the-grid system. The kit can power the three lights and a cellphone charger. Otherwise, Navajos charge their phones in their trucks.
Wickman showed maps of the reservation which is in parts of New Mexico, Utah and mainly Arizona, and is larger than 10 East Coast states. So there is the challenge of a huge area with extremely low population density.
Families living in remote areas have the multiple struggles of getting to schools, jobs and stores, Wickman said. There are few jobs on the reservation, and many households have very low income. The tribal government has a very low tax base.
Wickman showed pictures of a couple of the homes she worked on. One was an old white travel trailer with holes in the roof. She guessed it was about 16 feet long. The woman who lives there has no car to go for things like water, groceries or health care. The woman’s boyfriend was in the hospital. He has diabetes and had injured his elbow. Because he couldn’t get to medical care, the elbow became infected, and by the time he did get to see a doctor, his arm had to be amputated.
Wickman and fellow crew member Nancy Lauro used one of the holes in the RV roof to install the light kit. Wickman said she also worked to close the other two holes in the roof, which had been stuffed with newspaper.
“People often need additional repairs,” she said.
Remote locations aren’t the only issue. The white RV was across the road from a power pole, Wickman said, but couldn’t hook up to it. That’s because service is only available to residents who have documentation of their right to live where they do. Many tribal members do not have that documentation.
Another home they worked on was a portable garden or utility shed being upgraded for a woman who has been living in a small adobe structure.
“She is elderly, (she had) no lights to avoid tripping and falling in the poor light,” Wickman said. And she has no indoor plumbing.
In October, crews associated with the Durango Homebuilders Association started building handicap ramps to homes that need them.
In three years, light project volunteers have installed more than 150 light kits and spent around $22,000 on the kits, she said.
The project was assisted with a $6,500 Rotary District Grant, but the project is always looking for financial contributions as well as volunteer workers.
“Funding is a big deal,” Wickman said. “There were 15,000 homes without electricity, so we have 14,848 still to do.”