When students at Montezuma Creek Elementary School opened their latest home delivery of school work and meals from the San Juan School District, they found an additional gift: several donated books that the students were allowed to keep.

Around 1,500 books were shipped to the school, which is located on the Navajo Nation, last month by a Florida-based literacy program called Bess the Book Bus, and teachers selected titles for each of their students based on interest and reading level.

“It’s one of the best things that has happened to our area, I mean, for somebody to reach out to us and think of the students that we are serving,” said Charlene Poyer who teaches third grade in Montezuma Creek and who helped facilitate the donation. “These books are a source of hope we are able to share, to tell these kids that we are here and we care.”

While the coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges for students across the country after schools were closed and learning moved online, remote parts of the Navajo Nation in San Juan County have been particularly isolated. Phone and internet service is spotty at best in the southeast corner of Utah, and many families lack electricity altogether.

“There are so many obstacles that our children are dealing with," Poyer, who is a member of the Navajo Nation, said. “Just to be able to own a book in the area where we live, and create this emotional bond, allows our kids to think and to stimulate their imagination.”

(Courtesy of Amanda Lincoln) Donated books being sorted at Montezuma Creek Elementary in May before delivery to students.

When the San Juan School District made the decision to close down its schools in March, teachers like Poyer began making regular rounds on the bus route to deliver learning packets and meals to students. She posted a video to Facebook about one of the hourslong trips down rough dirt roads.

Jennifer Frances, Bess the Book Bus’ founder, who had visited San Juan County several times over the last decade and developed a friendship with Poyer, saw the video.

Since she started the program in 2003, Frances has traveled to 48 states (first in a Volkswagen Bus and currently in a Mercedes Sprinter van), reading to students and engaging in literacy outreach.

But of all the places she’s traveled, the Navajo Nation has retained a special significance for her.

“It was wonderful to me when I first visited to see the incredible support network within the community of the elders and health services and the parents,” she said, recounting the hospitality she received from locals like Poyer. “It was just such a wonderful community."

Frances contacted Poyer after seeing the bus route video. “I reached out to her because I figured the kids were probably super bored at home,” Frances said. “When we think of being quarantined here in Florida, what we consider isolation is such a vastly different thing than what they’re experiencing [on the Navajo Nation] during all this.”

Within a few weeks, Frances had shipped a pallet of donated books from First Book to Montezuma Creek.

The book bus program typically serves more than 25,000 kids and gives away over 50,000 books each year, according to Frances. “Kids are naturally readers, and it’s all about giving them the ability to choose things that are interesting to them,” she said.

Although that’s not fully possible during the pandemic, the variety of books shipped on the pallet, which cover all grade levels and many genres, gave teachers a range to choose from. Poyer said that for many of her students, books are prized possessions.

“The poverty rate in our area is about 50 percent, and the closest store is an hour away, which isn’t even a real bookstore,” Poyer said. “[Books are] one of the best things for students to keep and possibly build a home library…. Maybe it’ll help them carry through this pandemic.”

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 by clicking here.