Students help repair homes in devastated Navajo region

La Sierra pre-med/business management senior Adam Laudenslager, during the March spring break, helping with construction on Navajo Nation.
La Sierra pre-med/business management senior Adam Laudenslager, during the March spring break, helping with construction on Navajo Nation.

June 18, 2010
By Darla Martin Tucker

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – ( On June 14, the day after La Sierra University’s annual commencement, a group of 16 LSU students piled in several cars and headed to a deeply impoverished section of Arizona that is just emerging from 44 years of government-imposed development lockdown.

The students, working with nonprofit Project Pueblo, are making the eight-to-10-hour journey to aid members of the Navajo Nation existing on a section of the reservation called ‘Bennett Freeze.’ The Navajo in this area, a region banned to development, housing construction or repair for decades, have been living in dilapidated houses, trailers and hogans, many of which have no running water, natural gas or electricity. In some cases dwellings are located near old uranium mines that many believe may have been leaking radiation, poisoning water tables and soil.

The La Sierra contingent will arrive in Tuba City, just outside the former Bennett Freeze sector. They will join students arriving from the University of California, Berkeley to assist with repairing Navajo homes and assessing dwellings for the installation of solar panel banks. Solar panels will provide many Navajos in the freeze area with electricity for the first time, allowing refrigeration, light for the dark desert nights and myriad other conveniences most United States residents take for granted.

The students will also bring medicine Project Pueblo purchases at steep discounts from Giving Children Hope, another nonprofit in Buena Park, Calif. To purchase the medicine, Project Pueblo uses portions of the $250 fee each student pays to participate in the outreach trips. The fee covers lodging, fuel and food costs. The students will return home on June 19. Another aid trip with more than 30 students is slated for Sept. 12-17.

The Bennett Freeze covers roughly 1.5 million acres of a section of land previously locked in a decades-long dispute between Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. In 1966, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett prohibited any sort of development or construction, including home repairs, reportedly to prevent either group from taking advantage.

In 2006 the land battle was finally resolved and the majority of the Bennett Freeze acreage remained with the Navajo. On May 8, 2009, President Barack Obama signed a law repealing the Bennett Freeze and consequently opened the door for federal grants to aid the region. But money is slow to arrive and the needs are immediate.

La Sierra pre-med/biology student and Project Pueblo co-founder Ryan Wycliffe and his brother, Sean Wycliffe, started the nonprofit in Sept. 2008. A large part of the fledgling nonprofit’s focus thus far has been to assist with Navajo outreach projects and to raise awareness and money benefitting the Bennett Freeze residents. Sean is studying economics and global poverty at UC Berkeley where he helps run Project Pueblo. The organization has additional chapters at the University of California, Los Angeles and Loma Linda University. Established through the Associated Students of the University of California, Berkeley, Project Pueblo has formed a California non-profit corporation which is pending 501c3 status, Ryan Wycliffe said.

Sean first visited Navajo Nation in 2009 during a service trip organized by Project Pueblo and the Berkeley Seventh-day Adventist Church. Sean and Ryan then organized a service trip to the nation over spring break in 2009 with 25 students. “I immediately fell in love with the people,” Ryan said. Meanwhile, through a class research project at La Sierra, Ryan learned of the devastation caused by the Bennett Freeze area and the high degree of impoverishment there by reading an article in the Los Angeles Times.

Ryan returned with a few students on a research trip to the reservation last July. They met with a representative of the Navajo Nation’s Environmental Protection Agency and with representatives of Forgotten People, a Tuba City nonprofit working with the Navajo on the Bennett Freeze.

The Wycliffe brothers and a group of 50 students from La Sierra, UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles spent their March spring break this year assessing 50 far-flung Navajo homes in various states of disrepair to determine which are best suited for installation of solar panel banks to provide consistent electricity generation. They also checked for any necessary structural repairs needed to protect residents from freezing winter temperatures and raging dust storms.

The students also gathered data from approximately 70 surveys that tracked how far residents had to travel to obtain drinking water, detailed health problems and other information. Using wireless Internet connections and lap top computers in a Tuba City coffee shop, students transcribed the data into Excel files.

“Some people over [age] 65 are hauling water over 30 miles daily from contaminated wells,” said La Sierra University psychobiology senior Kathryn Anderson.

During the March trip, La Sierra biology professor Lee Greer with students Aubrey Fergusson and Yvonne Cao tested levels of radiation in and around Navajo structures located near former uranium mines. Mining for uranium in Navajo Nation was most prolific between the 1940s and 1960s in support of the U.S. Government’s defense programs, according to a 2007 abandoned uranium mine survey conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Greer used a Geiger counter that detects a sampling of the ionizing radiation in its vicinity. Greer and the students collected more than 30 samples in plastic Ziploc bags of soil, water and cow manure for chemical testing back in La Sierra’s labs. “We hope to have an understanding of where specifically on the ground some of the pollution is located within the Bennett Freeze area of the reservation,” Greer said. The data may potentially be used in grant applications or legal proceedings, he said.

Greer based his work in part on the U.S. Army Corps screening assessment report that was prepared for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The survey maps more than 600 abandoned uranium mines or related areas throughout the Navajo Nation. The nation is comprised of 27,000 square miles in portions of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

During the students’ March visit, Bennett Freeze resident and Navajo Nation member Larry Gordy helped the group build a bathroom in another resident’s home. Provided he can procure a cement mixer, cement and rebar, Gordy hopes this trip the students will help him build a foundation for a new house on his family’s old ranch land. He was born and raised there. “Which ever way we can do it, we’re open to almost anything,” Gordy said. “We welcome anybody that can help us in any way.”

“This is one of the first groups to come in and really donate their time. It would be nice to get more groups and more people out,” Gordy said.

Gordy and his wife have four children. They live in an old trailer where one thin conduit of electricity travels through an extension cord strung between their home and Gordy’s brother’s residence nearby. To obtain barrels of clean water, the family travels either 15 miles to Flagstaff or 30 miles into Tuba City. Showers consist of buckets of heated water. Gordy says he uses the family’s difficulties as a “training tool” for his children and teaches them not to put themselves down.

The students also aim to assist other areas of Navajo Nation. During the spring break trip several students helped another organization, Rez Refuge Ministries, build a youth center in Window Rock, capital of Navajo Nation.

The group’s work not only aided the native people of Arizona. The students’ lives were positively impacted through their efforts to help others. “I kind of gained that confidence,” said La Sierra pre-med/business management senior Adam Laudenslager, Project Pueblo’s assistant director. “I [realized] I don’t have to wait to be a doctor to make a difference.”


PR Contact: Larry Becker
Executive Director of University Relations
La Sierra University
Riverside, California
951.785.2460 (voice)


  • Last update on  June 18, 2010