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Navajo Special-Education School To Get Clean Water

Laurel Morales
Rebecca Gibbons teaches Zachary Martinez, 12, how to communicate using sign language.

Saint Michael’s Association for Special Education started more than four decades ago when Marijane Ryan, a nun and nurse, was convinced she could help a Navajo boy with polio.

Sister Ryan worked with him everyday outside the Catholic clinic on the reservation. As she worked, a medicine man from the community watched. After several weeks, Ryan got the boy to stand. When he saw this, the medicine man raced off and brought back his grandson with cerebral palsy.

Soon Sister Ryan had more than a dozen children.

Today the school has 55 children and adults. Ryan eventually established the school as a private nonprofit that serves children with the most severe developmental disabilities on the Navajo reservation.

Twelve-year-old Zachary Martinez travels two-and-a-half hours each week from the eastern edge of the reservation to stay at Saint Michael’s residential program. Today, he’s working on his colors.

Teacher Rebecca Gibbons shows Zach, who is autistic, how to sign and say the word while pointing to a picture of a blue motorcycle.

In the next room, volunteer Jacob Lundy helps two young girls with autism finger paint.

“Amanda obviously wanted the glitter, and Shanaildah wanted the dark green,” Lundy said. “And both of them are covered in it.”

Lundy helps the girls wash their hands at the sink.

“What’s odd to me is how normal it becomes for the water in the laundry room to come out black or our water today is yellow,” Lundy said. “And it’s just like we don’t think about it anymore.”

More than a third of the Navajo reservation doesn’t have running water. And some who do, worry it’s not safe enough to drink. Saint Michael’s is one such place. 

They drink from five-gallon jugs of bottled water. But they still bathe, wash dishes and do laundry with tap.

“It’s pretty expensive,” said Jim Conner, education director. “I think it runs about $8 a bottle. And our cost last year was about $20,000.”

That’s for both tap and bottled water.

“We have a lot of medically fragile children here at our school,” Conner said. “They need clean water to drink. A lot of them are fed through gastrostomy tubes so their food has to be prepared and blended with water at every feeding, so the water has to be very clean. We also have to clean all their medical equipment every day.”

On this day, the water runs yellow on parts of campus. And the sink that spews black water is running clear, but you can see a black residue.

Felencia Woodie’s son, 8-year-old Dameon David, has come to Saint Michael’s for four years now. He has cerebral palsy, seizures and scoliosis. Right now, he’s waking up from a nap on Superman sheets. Woodie said it means a lot that her son can go to Saint Michael’s.

“Other schools that he was going to go to, they didn’t have the nursing staff just across the street or the equipment he goes in or the trained staff that they have here to do his suctioning, his feeding and medications daily,” Woodie said.

But Woodie, who also works at the school, said the water is a problem.

“It has a certain stench to it,” Woodie said. “Sometimes you’ll smell like an egg smell. It’s yellow, brown, even we’ve seen black.“

But the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority officials said the water at Saint Michael’s meets national primary drinking water standards. The Environmental Protection Agency has established two levels of standards: the primary standard — eliminating contaminants that affect your health — is required by law. The secondary standard is voluntary, but it’s what many U.S. households have — water free of taste, color and smell.

Saint Michael’s and most everyone else who has tap water on the reservation meet only the primary standard. The utility is owned by the tribe but operates independently with revenue from customers. And it’s deputy general manager Rex Koontz said it can’t afford to manage reservation water for both primary and secondary standards.

A Los Angeles-based nonprofit called Dig Deep said it can do better. The organization has been working to bring clean water to Navajo communities since 2013.

“These are people that can’t advocate for themselves,” said George McGraw, founder and executive director of Dig Deep. “Some of them can’t even turn on a tap that’s in front of them. These are people that rely on us, on their teachers, on their government officials on society at large to make sure their most basic needs are taken care of. What’s more basic than having access to clean running water?”

Dig Deep is raising $100,000 to build a water filtration system for Saint Michael’s this summer. The first task: see if the poor water has corroded the plumbing so badly that it needs to be replaced.

Laurel Morales was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2011 to 2020.