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Sandy Journal

Grace Lutheran collects toys, used PCs, school supplies for Navajo Nation

Dec 01, 2021 02:44PM ● By Julie Slama

A Navajo Strong trailer at Grace Lutheran School and Church has been a drop-off location for the community to donate toys, school supplies and used PCs. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Early this December, many of the 90 Grace Lutheran schoolchildren will arrive with their arms full of brand new toys to give away.

The holidays are a time where many children look forward to opening new toys and that is the point behind Grace Lutheran’s students’ effort.

“As a school we have collected school supplies and sent them to the Navajo Nation for those kids down there; this is another way we can give,” Principal Shelly Davis said, adding that the annual school supply drive will be in late January.

Their toy drive is extended to the community as they will have a collection point Dec. 3 at Grace Lutheran’s 15th annual Christmas of the Nighttime Sky firework display, which is free and open to the public. The Sandy school and church is located at 1815 E. 9800 South.

“We will have tents set up with both church and school family volunteers where people can drop off toys, then park and watch the fireworks,” she said.

Last year, they donated about 2,000 toys for the Navajo Nation.

Grace Lutheran students have learned about conditions on the Navajo Nation from volunteers from the church and school who have donated time and supplies. 

“They’ve told them about families and how they live, this is what it looks like, and this is how we want to help them,” she said, adding that the same happens when volunteers help their sister school in Haiti. “Whether it’s the Navajo, Grace (school) in Bouyaha, Haiti, or even picking up trash in our own yards, we want them to learn service, and helping others, it’s more than them just being helpful. It’s about our faith and because God gives so much to us, that we then turn around and give to others.”

Grace Lutheran’s pastor, Anthony Masinelli, is one who has shared his experiences with Grace Lutheran students.

“I show them this is why education is so important and how education can lift you out of poverty,” he said. “We are so well off, we tend to take all this for granted, but that’s not a given for them.”

While on the reservation, Grace Lutheran volunteers learned that few computers are on the reservation, so they’re asking for donations of people’s used PC laptops and are seeking help to learn the Linux operating system. The goal is to use that free operating system on the PCs that can be placed in community centers where children can come in and use the computers to do their homework.

“During the pandemic, education was shut down. They weren’t doing online learning at home. There’s no electricity so they just lost a year and a half of their education, so that’s what we’re trying to address,” he said.

Masinelli made the connection to Bud Frazier, who after leaving the reservation and gaining an education, established the nonprofit, Navajo Strong.

“Bud started Navajo Strong during the (COVID-19) pandemic, to bring cleaning supplies, sanitizer and things related to the pandemic because he knew they didn’t have those things; and then it expanded into food and diapers and other baby supplies,” he said. “It grew and grew rapidly, and as they would get local churches and other organizations to gather supplies, he would drive his own personal vehicle down to Blanding and distribute these on the reservation.”

Masinelli, who now is a Navajo Strong board member, said as more people wanted to help, Frazier, out of his own pocket, rented a trailer to deliver the supplies, which for a while, were stored in a former Shopko in Blanding (until Utah State University bought the property for a satellite campus) as a staging area for the reservation.

“That’s when Discovery Channel’s producers and Mike Rowe learned about it, and they have a show about paying it back to people who give back to their community. They couldn’t do a show, but they were interested in Navajo Strong, so Mike Rowe personally bought him a brand new truck,” he said, adding that the truck and its new trailer have been stored on Grace Lutheran’s property as a donation collection point for Navajo Strong.

“The Navajo are the largest indigenous population in the U.S. with over 300,000 and 40% of them don’t have electricity or running water. The vast majority of Navajo are completely rural; they can barely get access to groceries. So, they certainly can’t get presents for their kids and even if they could afford it, they don’t have access to them. That’s the nature of poverty there. So, when we saw people lined up, some people waited for three hours to get a Barbie for their child for Christmas, it was really touching,” Masinelli said. “The kids get to pick out exactly what they want, and you see their faces; they’re super joyful.”

He also remembers one family arriving and the grandmother asked if she could have a blanket.  When one was given to her, she thanked them and said, “I really need this because it snows in my house.” When questioned if she meant it snows outside her home, she said, “No, it snows in my house; my windows are broken, and I have a hole in my roof.”

“We fixed her up with way more than a blanket. It’s the kind of stuff we see there,” Masinelli said, adding that as Grace Lutheran volunteers learned more, they realized they could do more to help than just bring down supplies.

Navajo Strong also has shifted its focus, transitioning more into helping family by family, so Grace Lutheran adopted a three-generation family that fell on difficult times, he said.

The family of seven that Grace Lutheran volunteers help was hit hard by the pandemic. They had left their single trailer before the pandemic and moved to Tucson trying to get a start away from the reservation.

“Then, the pandemic hit, and they all lost their service jobs. They lost their apartment and had to move home (to the reservation). While they were gone, squatters had broken into their trailer, busted windows and were cooking meth in it, and ended up setting fire to the inside of a third of it. They came home to find the squatters had pulled all of the copper wiring to get drug money, so they had no heat, no air conditioning, open windows and it was the dead of summer,” Masinelli said.

On top of that, the grandfather fell off a roof and ended up in a hospital where he learned he had COVID-19 and died, leaving the grandmother, her kids and young grandkids to cope, he said.

“We jumped in and we’re in the process of designing a traditional Navajo Hogan and we’ll give them a home,” Masinelli said, adding that in the meantime, the church and school purchased the family two RVs to live in so “they’re safe and they’re not out in the elements. We’re not only doing these drives to help out school children, but we’re helping these families and the community to have a better life.”