One at a time Groups collaborate to rebuild Bennett Freeze area homes

Brian Leddy/Independent Vi Nguyen, a volunteer student from Southern California, applies drywall mud in a Hogan in Cameron, AZ. March 26. The Hogan is being constructed for Thomasina Nez and her seven children

By Kathy Helms.Dine Bureau

CAMERON – It was the evening of Passover, and from the hogan door a full moon could be seen rising in the distance. The frenetic beat of jackhammer against bedrock had stopped at last. The air was filled with the collective sigh of satisfaction as a group of sunburned, blistered student volunteers peeled off their white dust masks and put away their safety goggles. The ditch for the piping which would carry gray water away from the double kitchen sink was almost dug.


Brian Leddy/Independent Christina Duarte, a volunteer student from Southern California, uses a pickax to dig a gray water trench in Cameron, Ariz. More than a dozen students from Southern California spent their spring break helping build a Hogan and construct a gray-water system for a family in need.

Thomasina Nez sat on a sawhorse inside her new hogan next to a bright yellow scaffold where Jeanine Bottoni and Brett McKean, Project Pueblo volunteers from La Sierra University, had been taping off sheetrock. Nez had just hauled the last load of sand and gravel to mix with the mortar students were going to use to build a platform for her new 300-gallon water tank – courtesy of Johnny Depp and his loyal fans, the JD Zone. “It's nice to see everything coming together. Really nice!” Nez said. “We're going to actually have a little bit of running water. We're going to really appreciate that.” Usually the family gets their drinking water by hiking an eighth of a mile down into the Grand Canyon to a natural spring. “The kids will carry the gallon jugs sometimes but then the older ones like my mom, myself and my brothers will carry the 3-gallon jugs out. We've been doing that our whole life. The water we have here in Cameron, it's not too good to drink,” she said.


Five years ago, Nez, 37, lost her husband, leaving her to raise seven children by herself in a single-wide mobile home in the former Bennett Freeze area of Cameron Chapter. Her mother, Sarah Mann, and a brother have been helping out. “With the kids, I tried to apply for Social Security but they wouldn't let me have it,” Nez said. “They told me that my husband didn't work long enough, so we don't have much income. The only income I have is my jewelry selling. That's how I've been raising the children.” She also receives food stamps, she said. Nez sells her jewelry 18 miles from home at the boundary of the Navajo Nation and Grand Canyon National Park. “That's up there in the mountains so there's trees and it's a lot cooler up there. During the summer I take the kids up there and we stay up there most of the day. Then the kids go play in the trees and have fun instead of being hot down here,” she said. “During the summer we actually sleep outside, sometimes in the back of the truck, or else we bring a bunk bed outside.”

Brian Leddy/Independent George Wong, a student volunteer from Southern California, uses a jackhammer to dig a trench in bedrock in Cameron, Ariz., March 26. Ryan Wycliffe, at left holding the shovel, is the director of Project Pueblo, an organization that helps families in need on the Navajo Nation.

PERFECT MATCH Because of her great need, Nez was chosen from among more than a dozen contenders to receive a new home by the California-based non-profit group, Project Pueblo, cofounded by brothers Sean and Ryan Wycliffe. Some of the Project Pueblo students from UC Berkeley won a $5,000 grant to build a hogan shell, and a group of volunteers from Mesa Grande Academy came out the week of Thanksgiving, laid a concrete foundation and built the shell in four days. In March, another group of Project Pueblo volunteers returned to insulate and sheetrock the hogan, install a water tank and drainage system, and basically have the hogan ready for the family to move into by Easter, with Eagle Energy of Denver supplying solar lights. 3

“Not only are we able to try to help change the life of Thomasina, but I know my life, my brother's life, his girlfriend, my fiancee – our lives are forever changed because of this experience,” Ryan Wycliffe said. “We really wanted to do something that would have a long-lasting, tangible impact on people's lives and so building a home for somebody, we thought, was the best way to accomplish that. We hope that it's the start of more projects like this over the next decade.” Wycliffe first came to the Navajo Nation in 2009, where he connected with Marsha Monestersky of the grassroots group Forgotten People and received a crash course on the needs of the Navajo people in the former Bennett Freeze area. “I knew right away that this was where we were supposed to be. There was just too much of a need. I had read about the Bennett Freeze, but once you see it, it's a completely different thing. It was impossible for me and my brother and our organization to turn away and not come back to help,” Wycliffe said. “This isn't just one person or one organization. It's multiple people, multiple organizations working together. “Marsha is not from this area but she's dedicated her life to helping these people, and we would never have found out about this if it wasn't for her. We're very lucky to have met her. She's almost a Mother Teresa, of sorts, in this area because of what she's done and what she's dedicated. We've very thankful to her and Forgotten People for allowing us into their lives,” he said. TEMPLATE FOR FUTURE The Nez hogan is just the beginning, Monestersky said. It has now been nearly four years since the Bennett Freeze was lifted and residents are still waiting on the tribal government to help them rebuild their lives. Meanwhile, a number of nonprofit groups have joined forces to bring the basic necessities to as many people as possible. “We have developed estimates from Home Depot invoices to be able to replicate this (hogan). Our water system designs were reviewed by Engineers Without Borders at Georgia Tech and we had two certified engineers out here last week. They're giving us blueprints for our designs. We're also working with Georgia Tech to design bathrooms with compost toilets so all we have is a gray water system, no black water systems,” she said. “This is survival. This is to improve people's quality of life and help them survive the effects of U.S. government neglect and Navajo Nation neglect. With our roving crews we are traveling hundreds of miles of unmaintained, ungraded roads in remote areas to serve those in the greatest need throughout the former Bennett Freeze and the Hopi Partitioned Land.” Jordan Blackwelder, a La Sierra student from Corona, Calif., and a member of the Project Pueblo leadership team, spent most of Passover behind a jackhammer and running to get dirt and gravel. It was his third mission to the Navajo Nation. “I think one of the greatest joys that I have is seeing the people's faces when we're all done. At the end of the trips we're all tired, but knowing that we've been able to make an impact is one of the best joys I can have in my life,” he said. For Jeanine Bottoni and Brett McKean, it was their first trip to Navajo, and the chance to help Nez was their inspiration. “This is my first mission trip. I didn't know what to expect,” McKean said as he 4

smoothed out a section of drywall tape. “It's really rewarding. It feels good to help her out. We're all working as hard as we can to get her moved in.” Bottoni agreed. “I've never done this before. I don't really know what I expected. I expected that we were going to be doing some building, but not as much as this. I'm really sore – like I'm super sore. It's really fun. The first day we got all of the insulation in and we started putting the ceiling up. The second day we got all of the walls and half of the ceiling. And then today we just finished up the ceiling. It was complicated fitting it in the right place,” she said. ALMOST HOME Inside Nez's mobile home, a cat and her kitten sleep in a cardboard box in front of the wood stove. Nez's mother and brother are stretched out on bunk beds stacked in the corner of the living room, eyes glued to the television where a young Clint Eastwood is about to get the jump on Chief Dan George in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” While the family is warm and inviting, the mobile home itself is bursting at the seams. “It used to be three bedrooms but we took one wall out so we could have a bigger living room,” Nez said earlier in the evening. “It's two bedrooms now, and that's what we all stay in. During the winter we all sardine up in there.” For now, the children are away at school and Nez is dreaming of all the extra space the new hogan is going to provide. “It's really wonderful. I'm glad I'm getting this so me and my kids can have a bigger area to sleep in,” she said. “The kids are really looking forward to the house being done.”