RSL player Kyle Beckerman and a Diné photographer help Navajo Nation homes in Utah get electricity for the first time

(Courtesy of Laura Dearden | Real Salt Lake Foundation) Photographer Mylo Fowler (Diné) and professional soccer player Kyle Beckerman install a solar set-up at a home in San Juan County in November 2019.

Tselakai Dezza, Utah • When Mylo Fowler was growing up on the Navajo Nation near Steamboat, Ariz., in the 1980s and ’90s, his family didn’t have electricity. All through high school, he did homework under a kerosene lamp or tried to fill out worksheets on the long, bumpy bus ride to school in the morning.

“There were so many years of being told, ‘You’ll get electricity this summer,’” Fowler said. “And that goes on for a year, which turns into five and that turns into 10, 15 years.”

It was only after Fowler left home, lived abroad and returned to guide tourists through slot canyons near Page, Ariz., that his family finally got power.

The experience has inspired Fowler to help find a stopgap solution for some of the 60,000 residents of the Navajo Nation who still lack electricity, and, since 2015, he has helped install a simple off-grid solar setup for over 100 households.

“Even though it’s almost 2020," he said, “so many kids are living right now the way I was living as a kid.”

Many residences are wired for electricity and have a meter box installed on the outside by the tribal utility company, but they have never been hooked up to the grid. “Maybe their homes aren’t up to code,” Fowler said, or maybe they’ve been on the waiting list for years.

Fowler, a professional photographer, has raised money for the solar equipment by selling calendars and prints. Most of the systems he has given to families include a single 50-watt panel and a self-contained battery system that can power a few LED lights or charge phones and other devices.

Since 2015, many nonprofits, including Utah Diné Bikéyah, have contributed to the project, which was initiated by donations and discounts from the Utah-based solar company Goal Zero.

On his most recent trip, Fowler worked with the Real Salt Lake Foundation and the Major League Soccer team’s captain, Kyle Beckerman, on 10 homes. To fund the trip, Beckerman and his teammates auctioned off signed, game-worn jerseys and the funds were matched by the foundation, raising enough money for 40 solar systems in San Juan County.

“One of the pillars of the Real Salt Lake Foundation is education,” said Mary VanMinde, the foundation’s executive director. “And when you look at the largest county in the state of Utah [by geography], which is also the poorest county, this is a natural fit for us to help.”

“It’s neat that we can make a difference with a pretty simple thing," Beckerman said. “We can bring someone light who has been relying on a kerosene lantern.”

Fowler, who is fluent in Navajo and was a voice actor for the character Crush on the Navajo language version of “Finding Nemo,” connects with families in need through Facebook and word of mouth.

“Mylo Fowler is people to people,” VanMinde said. “That’s why this works. We’ve never had someone recommend someone else who hasn’t needed it.”

VanMinde partnered with U.S. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, and the Heart of America Foundation to be able to distribute art supplies, soccer balls, toys and Real Salt Lake apparel to kids during the home visits.

And families with the most need have received larger systems from the project. Fowler said one of the more rewarding installations was for parents who needed to keep a child’s insulin cold, and before they received solar power, they were having to rely on a makeshift root cellar outside.

“What they were doing was digging a hole and then covering it with rocks,” Fowler said. "Now, for the last year and a half, they’ve had a solar-powered refrigerator.” Previously, the family had to rely on foods with a long shelf life. But one of the parents recently called Fowler and told him that the fridge has allowed the family to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Now those boys, they’re eating healthier,” he said.

Another highlight of the effort has been the ability to actually finish the installations on the spot. During the most recent trip to San Juan County, it struck Fowler just how important that is for households that have been promised electricity for years like his parents were.

“We did one installation way late one night and [the homeowner] asked how long it was going to take,” Fowler said. “I told him, maybe 30, 40 minutes. And then he asked, ‘How much longer after that until we have light?’”

Fowler told him, “You'll have it once we're done.”

“The wife couldn’t believe it,” Fowler continued. “She asked again, ‘We’re really going to have light in our house tonight?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’

"Then she got emotional and so did I. There are just hundreds of those stories everywhere.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.