Organization Looks To Build A Stronger, More Resilient Future
CH’ÍHOOTSOOÍ, DINÉTAH, (Window Rock, Navajo Nation) (March 23, 2021) – On March 15, the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund commemorated one year of successfully strategizing, organizing and distributing critical humanitarian resources to communities across the Navajo and Hopi nations.
In March 2020, as the number of positive COVID-19 cases exploded across the Navajo and Hopi nations, these communities sought the basic living essentials they needed to undertake protective self-isolation. Both nations have been long-time food deserts with only 13 full-scale grocery stores on their combined 29,945 square mile-territory–an area larger than the combined areas of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. They also face unique challenges in the face of COVID with a third of their communities lacking indoor plumbing and another third without electricity in their homes. Other complicating factors include unemployment rates regularly exceeding 50 percent in these communities, significant rates of overcrowded housing, and a high incidence of underlying conditions due in part to almost a century of federal overburdening of Navajo lands with extractive development and unremediated Superfund sites.
Given the extreme food desert conditions on the two nations, many tribal members do their shopping in off-reservation communities where the selection is broader, food is fresher and prices are lower. Unfortunately many shelves were barren in the border towns by mid-March 2020. The pandemic also caused many tribal businesses and departments to immediately shut down or reduce their hours of operation, which included critical water access points. Combined, these factors caused an unexpected crisis among many families who needed access to basic living essentials.
On March 15, 2020, knowing the extreme vulnerability of these communities and the unique challenges they would face in protecting themselves from COVID-19, former Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch established a GoFundMe Campaign as a means to provide at-risk COVID-19 populations on Navajo and Hopi–such as elders, immunocompromised, and struggling families–with two weeks worth of essential living items so they could safely shelter at home and avoid spreading COVID-19.
The next day, Branch assembled a team of a dozen phenomenal Navajo and Hopi women leaders to assist with this direct relief effort targeting the two communities. Immediately, the group started shopping. By the third day the group had made their first distribution to the Winslow Community Health Representatives who delivered the food, PPE, toiletries, and cleaning supplies to elderly and immunocompromised tribal members.
On the fourth day, the team had raised over $100,000 through GoFundMe and delivered its second load of food to Tuba City. The group was able to deploy available food to Chilchinbeto when the Navajo Nation experienced its first COVID outbreak there on March 17. When the group put out a call for volunteers, over 100 brave community members stepped forward. Today, the group has over 300 volunteers and 30 regular volunteer and staff distribution teams.
By the end of March 2020 the group had formed a Utah-based nonprofit, Yee Ha’ólníi Doo, which does business as the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund. Yee Ha’ólníi Doo translates into “May our people have fortitude in times of difficulty.” Today, the group operates under a fiscal sponsorship by Nonprofit Fiscal Services to ensure federal tax exemption for donations until it secures its own 501(c)(3) designation.
To date, the team has raised over $18 million, most of which the Relief Fund has strategically channeled towards providing food, water, PPE and other essential items to over 370,000 Navajo and Hopi people. Each week the Relief Fund conducts 10 to 20 Kinship Care Package Distributions (each Package includes two weeks worth of food, water, and PPE for a household) and five PPE Kit Distributions (each Kit contains 50 three-ply masks, a container of lysol wipes, and an eight-ounce container of gel hand sanitizer for each adult recipient).
The Relief Fund has also utilized its funding to launch an important, culturally relevant public health education campaign designed to equip Navajo and Hopi community members with the knowledge they need to protect their families from the spread of COVID-19. The team has also assisted Navajo and Hopi communities by infusing them with the following resources:
Approximately 800 hand washing stations for households that lack indoor plumbing
Over 100,000 masks, surgical gowns, and related PPE for elders, immunocompromised, and first responders sewn by volunteer seamstresses
48,000 pounds of critical relief supplies airlifted to remote Navajo and Hopi communities in collaboration with Air Serv International
Over 75 boxes of donated winter clothing items for children
Over 140 tons of coal for elders as part of a winter home heating program
17 industrial-sized refrigerators and 22 industrial-sized freezers to facilitate local food distributions
261,000 gloves for Northern Navajo Medical Center during a nationwide glove shortage
This week, in recognition of the fact that children do not have access to the vaccine yet, the team began including special Children’s PPE Kits in their weekly PPE Distributions. In addition to child-sized and kid-friendly PPE, the Children’s PPE Kits include a children’s coloring book with educational content about COVID-19.
Through their proven effectiveness, the Relief Fund was fortunate to have attracted the attention of MacKenzie Scott, a philanthropist who pledges funds to high-impact organizations doing transformative work. She provided an unrestricted gift to allow the team maximum flexibility in undertaking their critical work. This has allowed the team to provide a strong finish to their relief work and helps as they transition to long-term sustainability-based work. Scott’s criteria for selection included a track record in effective management and significant impact in their fields. Other major donors include the Vadon Foundation (which provided a critical infusion of resources to the Relief Fund that allowed them to continue operations full-speed through the end of 2020), the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, NDN Collective, and the Sierra Club.
“The success of our fundraising campaign was driven by the deep kindness and generosity of so many beautiful-hearted people across this country, and indeed the world, who care about the well-being of the Navajo and Hopi people and recognize our unique vulnerability in the face of COVID. This inspired their willingness to assist our grassroots effort to protect our communities from this deadly virus and we thank them for enabling us to do this urgent, life-saving work for our beloved communities,” Branch said.
The Relief Fund team plans to wind down its relief effort in the near term as the Navajo and Hopi communities continue their successful vaccine rollout and as the number of cases in these communities decline. Branch stated that the next phase of operations will focus on strengthening the resiliency of Navajo and Hopi communities so they are never caught off guard like this again.
“We seek to build pandemic-proof and climate change-resilient communities that will be strong enough to withstand whatever existential challenges come our way in the future,” Branch said. “Our first step will be the development of innovation hubs at the local community level through the establishment of community centers that will infuse communities with the critical resources necessary to rebuild and restrengthen our economies, our food security, our languages, and our cultural practices.”
Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund Deputy Director Cassandra Begay said the alignment of staffing was reflective of the warrior role inherently taken on by indigenous women to protect their families, culture, and tradition. “Historically, the Navajo Nation was a formidable opponent to anyone as communities operated on consensus and holistically respected gender roles. Our women are critical in carrying our culture forward and nurturing our future generations,” she said. “As a matriarchy, we’re stepping forward to protect our people.”
The governing board of Yee Ha’oolniidoo is composed entirely of Navajo women, and Hopi women play a vital role in ensuring delivery of services to Hopi community members.
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