Civil Engineers provide new buildings, new hope

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Nicole Manzanares
  • 140th Wing Public Affairs
Four members of the 240th Civil Engineer Squadron, 140th Wing, Colorado Air National Guard went to the Saint Michael's Association for Special Education on the Navajo Nation June 8. 

They spent four days evaluating and developing a master plan to upgrade the five-acre campus. 

The effort to upgrade the complex for physically and mentally handicapped children and adults is part of the National Guard's Innovative Readiness Training Program, a civil-military affairs program that links military units with civilian communities for humanitarian projects said Air National Guard Master Sgt. Charles Stoyer, National Guard Bureau IRT superintendent. 

The Saint Michael's project is being conducted in coordination with the Southwest Indian Foundation. 

"The school works to prepare the students to be self sufficient and independent as possible by the time they become adults," said James Connor, director of education for St. Michael's Academy. 

The engineers created a plan targeted at training Guardsmen in real-world deployed situations. 

According to Lt. Col. Tom Niichel, 240th CES chief of training, there are many similarities between Iraq and the reservation in Arizona. The soil is full of clay and silt and there are major soil drainage difficulties. Many of the structures erected were done too quickly and built poorly and consequently need major repair and refurbishment. Some facilities need to be taken down completely, which could equate to a bombed-out building in Iraq or Afghanistan he added. Additionally, all the structures need electrical, sewer and water upgrades. 

Over the next five years, various units across the Air National Guard will implement the plan created by the four members of the 240th CES. 

"We need to come up with projects that are useful and good for the community as well as useful for the guard and members that come out here to do the actual work," said Niichel. "The current network of dilapidated buildings such as classrooms, housing and therapy rooms need an amazing amount of work." 

According to the staff at St. Michael's, the roads make access to the school very 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. 

"We all appreciate the IRT program and are so grateful that this is finally happening for the school," said Conner. 

240th Civil Engineer Flight Staff Augmentation Team (S-Team), 140th Wing, Colorado Air National Guard Background:
Examples of projects the augmentation team has already done include: airfield surveys and pavement evaluation, facility programming, site plans and cost estimates, real estate inventories, updates to natural and cultural resource management action plans, environmental and OSHA assistance, and spill plan updates. Airmen have also participated in goodwill projects such as water resource development and designing medical aid stations.
S-Team members have also augmented other military engineering teams to do tasks such as: design for army combat engineers, management of base departments of public works, project management and facility inspection.

St. Michael's Background:
Thirty years ago, Sister Marijane Ryan, a Franciscan nun, started a program to care for one Navajo child with a severe disability. The number of children cared for grew yearly, and in 1982, Ryan realized her dream by establishing today's St. Michael's Academy as an all-Navajo entity. Today, St. Michael's serves more than 80 infants, children and adults with mental and physical disabilities. Less than half of the children are ambulatory, 40 percent are non-verbal, more than a third are in wheelchairs, and children with tracheotomies, feeding tubes and various spinal problems are common. 

St. Michael's care for its children with a day education and training program, a residential program in which half of the children are in-residence during the week and many stay through the weekend. The registered nurses, and physical and occupational therapists provide the children with proper health care. The staff are experienced professionals and provide the children with love and care they need. 

St. Michael's is located on the open arid desert of the central part of the vast Navajo Reservation which consists of about 27,000 square miles. The major part of the Reservation is located in Arizona and extends into New Mexico and Utah. It is a land of intense beauty within which the average Navajo family struggles to survive. Much of this struggle centers on adapting from a traditional way of life to the so-called modern society. 

St. Michael's students need intensive physical and occupational therapy. There are three physical therapists and one occupational therapist to work with the children. They use exercise, dancing, toys, massage and specialized equipment to keep the children supple and prevent contracture. Because many of the students are so severely affected with disabilities, St. Michael's has a staff of three nurses working full-time. 

Individuality is most important when it comes to educating and training the children. They do not have classes at the school but group the children by their age and ability to learn. The obvious weakness is a lack of proper facilities. St. Michael's staff eagerly await the new facilities that will provide therapeutic pools, proper health facilities and physical education space that is meaningful for children in wheelchairs and walkers.
At present, St. Michael's day training and education program is being run out of sixteen detached buildings. Some are log hogans, some are frame structures and some are more modern cement buildings. 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. 

Last year, the directors of St. Michael's began their efforts to procure new, state-of-the-art facilities that will provide a safe, sanitary and accessible space for the children.