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Bilford Curley's home in Lame Deer

Red Feather Development Group partnered with Northern Cheyenne's Housing Improvement Program and Tribal Housing Authority to renovate Bilford Curley's home in Lame Deer. Curley is a veteran and lives in the home with his four children.

For Lame Deer resident Bilford J. Curley Sr., sustainability is more about finance than science.

The inefficiency of the home of the Northern Cheyenne elder and disabled Vietnam veteran saddled his family with $500-a-month heating bills through the winter months. A fixed income made necessary repairs out of reach. But a coordinated effort by volunteers, community organizations and federal agencies is putting Curley on the fast track to sustainable living. His home is undergoing a $100,000 renovation including a new heating system, beefed up insulation and a new roof.

"When I get my first light bill I'm going to frame it," Curley said.

Curley has lived in the home for more than 25 years and shares it with four children and a wife who uses a wheelchair. When the monthlong renovation project began on July 11, the house had a bad roof, structural dry rot and a cockroach infestation. Most of the furniture was tossed to ensure the insects wouldn’t return. The Northern Cheyenne Tribal Housing Authority placed the family in temporary housing during construction, but the house is unfurnished so the family sleeps on the floor.

“I think one of the (hardest) things is the kids miss their home. But I know it’s going to be a better home, a warm place and a roof over their heads,” Curley said.

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Celia Giallanella, 20, of Albuquerque

Celia Giallanella, 20, of Albuquerque, N.M., and Kyle Kuntzman, 18, of Taylorville, Ill., scrape wallpaper off a house in Lame Deer last week. Giallanella and Kuntzman are volunteers from the Catholic HEART Workcamp renovating Bilford Curley's house.

Despite the challenges, Curley said he prays for the other people in the community facing similar struggles. He knows there are limited resources available, and he is grateful for the help.

Red Feather Development Group, a Bozeman-based nonprofit organization, is leading the project and overseeing the renovation.

Red Feather has built 18 homes on three reservations. Six straw bale houses were built on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and in the past five years two homes received major renovations, said John Marian, Red Feather education director.

Marian said the project benefited from donated materials, and volunteers have helped cut labor costs, which represent the most expensive part of construction. James Hardie Industries donated siding for Curley’s house, and young people from Catholic HEART Workcamp were on hand for the first week of construction.

Marian couldn’t rely solely on volunteers to complete the 1,400 hours of planned labor, so he looked locally and hired Lame Deer-based Talon Construction.

“We want to make sure we keep as many dollars on this reservation as we can, instead of bringing in white folks from off the reservation,” Marian said.

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Freya Coffey, 18

Freya Coffey, 18, moves debris through a hole in the wall where the fireplace was located.  

The project wouldn’t be possible without a $7,500 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture and $60,000 secured from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Housing Improvement Program.

Michelene Bearcomesout, director of HIP on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, said Curley had been applying for assistance since at least 2007. In that time he was able to get assistance with smaller projects; Bearscomeout personally helped build a deck and paint the home.

“We painted his house at least three or four times because it was red and green at one point. It was a Christmas house for a while,” she said with a smile.

Jo-Ellen Cree, tribal operations officer for BIA Rocky Mountain Region, said the grant is competitive. More than 780 applications were submitted from different reservations in Montana and Wyoming.

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Liz Deeba, 19

Catholic HEART Workcamp volunteer Liz Deeba, 19, saws through a post on July 12.  

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The grant was approved in May, but the project has been about a year in the making.

The house was one of eight on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation that received an energy audit during summer 2015. It was by far the least efficient, and its air quality tested very poorly, said Leo Campbell of Native Energy Auditors.

Campbell helped complete the audits as part of a University of Colorado program to encourage young people on Native American reservations to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math fields. He said Curley’s home had many air leaks, used electric baseboards as a primary heat source and an old chimney funneled the heat from the house. The baseboards and chimney have been removed and will be replaced by more modern alternatives.

A wood burning stove will take the place of the fireplace. A solar panel installed on the roof will run a heater donated by Solar Thermix LLC.

Campbell said he wants the Curley home to serve as a pilot for future projects but home improvements are only one part of the solution.

“The hardest factor in energy efficiency is getting the clients or homeowners to change their habits, to turn that light off or close that window when the heat’s on. Simple things,” he said.

The construction project still needs volunteers and anybody interested can contact Marian at 223-4750. Donations to help construction costs can be made at https://www.gofundme.com/bilfordcurley.

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Leo Campbell of Native Energy Auditors

Leo Campbell of Native Energy Auditors works on renovating Bilford Curley's home in Lame Deer.

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General assignment reporter for the Billings Gazette.