WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren welcomed 17 student and several officials of the St. Michaels Association for Special Education to his office for the signing of legislation that will keep it alive.
The COVID-19 epidemic hit the association hard, threatening to destabilize its operation and potentially cause it to close its doors.
It turned to the Navajo Nation Council for a $1.5 million grant to bring it back to its financial feet, maintain services to its Navajo clients, increase its enrollment, continue to employ its 36 staff members and to hire 11 new employees.
Without the Council’s help, they said, it would have been forced to close its education department.
On April 19, the Council voted 20-to-0 to support the association with one-time funding. President Nygren’s signature made Navajo decision-makers’ support unanimous, to the delight of the association’s clients, CEO, board members.
The President told the group he remembered telling them a month ago to find some champions on the legislation side, “and you won’t have any problems when it comes over here.”
He expressed his gratitude to Navajo Nation Council delegates Brenda Jesus, Dr. Andy Nez, and former Speaker Seth Damon who attended the signing.
“Thank you very much for doing that because I know the funds were really needed, and the Council supported it,” he said. “We want to make sure we assist you in any way that we can.”
The President said he wanted to make sure the Nation helped the association “get back up and dust itself off” and he encouraged it to be sure it was a one-time request.
“This is one-time assistance that I totally support to get you back on your own feet,” he said. “With this $1.5, go find some grants, go find some different support with (Division of Social Services) Director Thomas Cody and his assistance.”
Dr. Nez said he understood the significance, energy and patience it takes to care for children in this way. He thanked the staff for the hard work they put in to get the legislation passed in just a month’s time to get them the help they need.
“I’m glad that we’re here with President Nygren to sign the legislation,” said Delegate Jesus. “I know it was hard work. It was a collective effort, and I want to thank each of you.”
Speaker Damon said he, too, was happy all the students have an opportunity to continue moving forward because of the funding.
“I support this school in its continuation to really try to make sure the only resource we have available on the Nation to help remains,” he said. “Times like this are hard to get through. We all need to take care of our Navajo people, no matter who they are.”
SMASE Board President Annabeth Nez expressed appreciation on behalf of the board and the association.
“They made us feel valued and welcomed,” she said of the Council. “This is the first time in our lifetime the Navajo people actually thought, and got the leaders they need. Thank you.”
SMASE is a non-profit organization in operation since 1970. It assists severely disabled children and adults throughout the Navajo Nation. It provides education, day treatment for adults, therapy, daily living skills, nursing services and residential services.