National Guard, Navajo Nation break ground for special needs school

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Nicole Manzanares
  • 140th Wing Public Affairs
St. Michaels Association for Special Education officially marked a new era today when more than 200 guests from the Navajo Nation, local dignitaries, staff, students, family and National Guardsmen gathered to celebrate with a groundbreaking ceremony at the school.

The National Guard was represented by the Colorado Air National Guard's 240th Civil Engineering Flight, and the Virginia Air National Guard's 203rd Red Horse Squadron.
In the course of five years, civil engineering units from across the Air National Guard will spend their two weeks of annual training at the school as part of the Innovative Readiness Training program, a civil-military affairs program that links military units with community projects. The program helps prepare military units for their wartime missions while supporting the needs of the local communities.

According to the staff at SMASE, the current roads make access to the school difficult, especially during inclement weather. At times, health care workers are unable to reach patients and getting the sick, elderly or infants to the nearby hospital is usually a full-day affair.

The buildings are dilapidated and need repair, all are separated from each other, none have good air exchange, and in spite of the hard work by the staff, all are difficult to keep in a sanitary condition.

Five years ago, the school procured a grant to connect the structures with a series of concrete wheelchair ways; however rain, snow and muddy conditions still prove to be a hazard for the disabled children.

"We are helping people that truly can't help themselves in an area that has a depressed economy. ... Everything we do here will certainly touch and improve their quality of life," said Master Sgt. Charles "Chip" Stoyer, National Guard Bureau Innovative Readiness Training project coordinator.

The groundbreaking ceremony is an integral part of what the next five years will bring to SMASE and the National Guard.

In addition to the school, the campus will feature a new nurse's station, an adult recreation center, a community center and a transportation building for the school buses.

"This project is phenomenal. We are surrounded by a wonderful synergistic team of people from all over this country converging here to accomplish this mission. We look forward to a continuing relationship and friendship between the Innovative Readiness Training program and St. Michaels Association for Special Education," said Lt. Col. Stephen Caton, National Guard Bureau Innovative Readiness Training program manager. "We look forward to the number of Air National Guard units that will be coming here to participate in this great project over the next few months. This will indeed be an exciting summer for all of us."

The groundbreaking ceremony was unique in that a Navajo tradition was brought into the ceremony. Both the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance were translated into native Navajo. The invocation was spoken by Chief Master Sgt. Les Watkins with Navajo Chief Chee Ramon, who blessed the campus and the flags present on the stage. Keith Little, a Navajo Code Talker during World War II, spoke to the guests and bridged the gap between the Navajo Nation and the military.

"I was amazed on how this project came about with the military. St. Michaels is unique and also the Navajo code talkers are a unique group of military men (who) served in World War II. The Navajo people have a long history and we have seen tremendous change and are proud people. I am very glad that we are celebrating here today," said Little, who is also president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association. Little is a former Marine Corps private first class.

At the end of the ceremony, eight dignitaries from the Air National Guard, St. Michaels Association for Special Education, Southwest Indian Foundation, Bureau of Indian Education and Navajo Code Talkers Association officially broke ground on the facility.