Harsh conditions no deterrent for student’s “amazing” Navajoland visit
August 17, 2009
By Darla Martin Tucker
RIVERSIDE, Calif. – ( www.lasierra.edu )The group of 12 students was so cold their first night camping near the half-finished house in the Arizona desert that they moved their tents inside the structure. Their efforts proved futile. “Even then it was cold,” said 20-year-old Nicosan Santillana.
Santillana and 11 other students from La Sierra University arrived at the beginning of their spring break in Coppermine, Ariz. The small community sits atop a rugged mesa in Navajoland, a 27,000-square-mile territory that sprawls over parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The Navajo Nation governs the territory. The students’ assignment in Coppermine: to install drywall, insulation and otherwise help complete the two-story home for habitation by a local Seventh-day Adventist pastor and his family. The Fowlers, members of the Navajo Nation, were living miles away in a traditional hogan while their new home was being built.
The 12-member group was part of a larger La Sierra contingent that first arrived in Navajoland following a 10-hour drive from Riverside in two rented vans. The caravan first stopped in Monument Valley, Utah, also part of Navajoland, and the former site of a Seventh-day Adventist hospital mission compound. A Seventh-day Adventist church still operates in the valley of familiar, often-photographed red stone pinnacles and mesas frequently used as scenery in films and advertisements. At Monument Valley the group of 26 students divided into two crews, with Santillana’s group opting for the home-building task in Coppermine. The remaining group helped build a hogan in Monument Valley.
Santillana’s company arrived in Coppermine following a three-hour journey, their progress hampered by the red desert sand in which their vehicle became mired two or three times. “…it helped with building up team work with all the group pushing [the van],” Santillana said.
The Coppermine assignment was her first mission trip and a memorable experience all around, despite rough living conditions that involved outdoor cooking, tent accommodations for icy cold nights and no shower facilities for 30 miles. A junior this coming academic year, Santillana is studying psychology and pre-nursing at La Sierra. “It was amazing,” she said. “I have always wanted to go on a mission trip and for that to be my first was a great thrill. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
Despite the trip’s challenges, Santillana came away with a positive, faith-building experience. She and other students formed lasting friendships with Pastor Allen Fowler, his wife and children, the construction contractor and a construction assistant with a troubled past who found a new life and home with the pastor’s family. In between working on the family’s home, Santillana and her schoolmates played with the Fowler children. They helped celebrate one of the kids’ birthdays by purchasing a cake.
The students arrived in Coppermine without having had opportunity to buy additional food and other supplies. They spent their first evening attempting to cook tomato soup over a campfire in the backyard of the partially constructed house. “We were miles away from civilization. We had to drive 30 miles to go to Wal-Mart,” Santillana said.
The following day, at the Wal-Mart store in the city of Flagstaff, they bought water and food with money from La Sierra. With personal funds they purchased gloves, scarves, sleeping bag padding and other items to fight cold weather that included snow flurries. For a bit of fun, they also purchased some non-essentials. “My friend and I bought a [Phoenix Suns point guard] Steve Nash poster, since California doesn’t exactly have Phoenix Suns merchandise,” Santillana said with a laugh.
Workdays for the students in Coppermine began at 5 a.m. They installed insulation, used putty to seal tape on walls and put up drywall. At night, the students pitched their tents inside the house for added warmth and took them down before work began in the morning. The university provided the tents, propane grill, food and cooking gear.
By the second or third day of construction work and tent living without benefit of a warm shower, the students decided to take action. They drove to Flagstaff again and offered two hotel managers money for use of a hotel room bathroom. Both managers wanted a full night’s fee for showering, but a manager at a third hotel agreed to allow the students a few hours’ cleanup time for $40. “That was the best offer we got,” Santillana said. “I have never been so cold and dirty in my life.” The students did not have another opportunity get clean until their return to Monument Valley near the week’s end when they met up with the rest of the La Sierra students for the return trip to Riverside.
In their scant spare time, Santillana’s group toured beautiful local canyons and ancient Indian dwellings near Coppermine. Overall the La Sierra junior believes her first mission trip strengthened her spiritual life, mainly by observing the Fowlers’ strong Seventh-day Adventist beliefs and values. “To see how it really impacts and motivates people was eye-opening,” she said.
PR Contact: Larry Becker
Executive Director of University Relations
La Sierra University