(March 5, 2009)

Contact: Rick DelaHaya, Centenary News Services, 318.869.5073

Students Assist Others During Spring Break

(Editor's note: Rick DelaHaya, Director of Marketing & Communication traveled with the group to Arizona and wrote this first-hand account)

Tuba City, Az.—Two days drive from Shreveport to this small city in northern Arizona could not prepare them for the impact two simple phrases spoken in Navajo could have on them...ahé-he and nizhoni.

These are two phrases or words you hear everyday—thank you and beautiful—but when spoken from the heart from someone you don't know and whose life you changed by a simple gesture, it can mean the world.

So it was for 21 students and members of Centenary College as they spent four days on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona building wheelchair ramps for three families during their annual spring break.

During the week, the group worked in conjunction with ASSIST! to Independence, a community based, American Indian owned and operated non-profit agency that was established by and for people with disabilities and chronic health conditions. One of the biggest needs, according to Mia Seimy, the Independent Coordinator for ASSIST, is the construction of wheelchair ramps. "There is a back log of people waiting for us to provide assistance, and the work the Centenary students accomplished went a long way in helping them gain back a bit of their independence."

The group was split into three work groups, each constructing new ramps to existing structures, painting, adding grab bars to showers, building new stairs and even replacing rotted drywall.

The first team remained in Tuba City and built the largest of the three ramps. At just over 30 feet long, the ramp angled 15 feet down to a landing and then switched back another 15 feet. "One of the coolest things was how well we all worked together on this project," said Leah Dark, a freshman from Shreveport. "We all had the opportunity to learn how to use the power tools, including saws, drills, and power screw drivers, which is something I didn't know how to use before."

As a thank you for the hard work, the group was invited inside the family home after three days for a snack of traditional Indian fry bread and Kool-Aid. While eating, stories were shared with the group about the family, and relatives were pointed out in photos that dotted the small living room. But the biggest thank you came when the work was done and the family came out on the rebuilt deck and admired the new ramp. "Nizhoni" was spoken by all.

The second group traveled the farthest, driving almost an hour from their base in Tuba City, 45 miles southeast to Hotevilla. This small group of seven students built one of the smallest ramps ...and one of the hardest. Digging through two layers of rock, the group took the first two days just to dig and set four posts in the ground. "It was really hard work," said Christina Haacker, 2008 graduate. "We all took turns digging and cracking through the rock...we used whatever we could find...post hole diggers, hammers, crow bars...just to get deep enough to set the posts in."

But the group persevered and finally dug deep enough, set the posts and constructed the ramp, something they thought they would never have been able to accomplish. Through all their hard work, the defining moment came when the gentleman they were doing all this labor-intensive work for slowly came out of the house, and uttered one word in Hopi..."kwakwha" or thank you. "I will never forget the look on his face when he saw the finished ramp we built," said Sandy Roach, a junior religious studies major. "His look and his expression were just awesome."

The final group traveled north about 30 minutes to Cameron, where they too built a small ramp, but also painted the outside of the very small three-room house, replaced rotted drywall in a bathroom, and finished by painting the bathroom a nice shade of blue. Watching the entire process was "Miss Chief" as she was affectionately known. Not able to speak any English, she watched the progress from her loom where she wove intricate-patterned blankets. As a way to thank the group, she served them "Navajo tacos" the last day, which consisted of fry bread layered with meat, cheese, shredded lettuce and tomatoes. And like the other groups, the defining moment came when "Miss Chief" looked at her new ramp, steps and painted house.

"Unable to speak English, her eyes spoke volumes when we were done," said Betsy Eaves, Chaplain at Centenary College. "She hugged me just as tight as any family member would hug another, and that said it all."

After four hard days, the students with their sore muscles, calloused hands and tired bodies made the two-day trip back to Shreveport.

So were the four days in a van traveling cross country, wind and dust storms, and the back-breaking work worth it? One student summed up everyone's general thoughts.

"The relationships that we built between the group, and the Navajo and Hopi families we were assisting is something I will always treasure," added Hacker.

To learn more about the Christian Leadership Center or mission opportunities, contact the CLC at 318.869.5156.

About Centenary College of Louisiana

Centenary College is a private, four-year arts and sciences college affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Founded in 1825, it is the oldest chartered liberal arts college west of the Mississippi River and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Centenary is one of 16 colleges and universities constituting the Associated Colleges of the South and is regularly rated as one of the top colleges in the South. In 2008 Centenary College celebrated 100 years in the Shreveport and Bossier City communities.