CH’ÍHOOTSOOÍ, DINÉTAH, (Window Rock, Navajo Nation) (May 7, 2021) – The massive undertaking of providing food and personal protective equipment (PPE) to over 400,000 tribal members throughout two tribal nations in the past year would not have been accomplished by the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund without the strong spirit of volunteerism.
Over 1,300 members of the Navajo and Hopi nations bravely stepped forward amidst the global pandemic with selfless dedication as volunteer distribution team members and seamstresses.
“Our relatives were only able to receive the COVID relief they needed throughout the pandemic with the consistent engagement of a solid core of volunteers who organized procurement, facilitated deliveries, staffed our distribution teams, sewed tens of thousands of masks and medical gowns, and managed regional distribution logistics,” said Relief Fund Interim Executive Director Ethel Branch. “Without the incredible dedication of our volunteers and their great love for our people, our relief effort could not have been successful.”
Over 800 Relief Fund distribution volunteers staffed over 20 volunteer distribution sites across both the Navajo and Hopi Nations. Additionally, the Relief Fund has eight staff distribution sites, manned by a number of former volunteers.
From these locations, volunteers receive food, water and PPE shipments, disinfect and package items into care packages or relief kits, load and unload the packages or kits, and organize all aspects of relief distributions from finding optimal distribution locations to directing traffic.
With the assistance of distribution volunteers, 1,000 to 2,000 Kinship Care Packages containing two weeks’ worth of food, water and PPE were distributed on a weekly basis between April 13, 2020 and March 26, 2021. Volunteers assisting with food and PPE distributions underwent strict health and safety training that met or exceeded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) safety standards in order to ensure safe receipt of aid by beneficiaries.
Relief Fund Chinle Team Lead and Chinle Chapter Manager, Walton Yazzie manages three separate crews of volunteers that organize calls and data entry, food distribution, and PPE distributions. The nature of volunteering for a relief effort is such that volunteers take on many different responsibilities.
“My pick-up and delivery crews also volunteer to help with our wood hauls. They are dedicated. They don’t work an eight-to-five schedule. They work every day, morning and night, as long as we get it done,” Yazzie said. “We push ourselves to centralize deliveries in our Chapter region and then we help out where we can beyond our Chapter boundaries. Our volunteers do a lot.”
New Mexico Kinship Care Package Program Coordinator, Vanessa Tullie said the knowledge that volunteers have of their communities provides invaluable information that is vital to strategizing effective coverage and logistical rollout of Relief Fund distributions in their respective regions.
“Unforeseen obstacles and sudden changes are inevitable in the COVID era but our team’s food and PPE distributions have remained consistent with the adaptability of volunteers and the generous donation of their time, energy, and resources,” Tullie said.
The age range of volunteers spans many generations, each enthusiastic to share knowledge and collaborate with other community members.
“We have really young folks that are full of energy,” Tullie said. “We also have older volunteers that are grandmas, másánís, and cheiis. They all have a collective goal of doing everything they can to get resources to their communities.”
According to K’é Kinship Care Package Program Manager Mary Jean Francis, she’s thankful to have had so many compassionate volunteers.
“I hope they know how much we appreciate them and that a lot of the groundwork would not have been possible without them or their generosity,” Francis said.
This shared responsibility is what has kept the Relief Fund capable of reaching so many communities in need. The team of volunteers have given so much and don’t expect monetary gain or anything in return. Many utilize their personal vehicles and trailers when needed and often share helpful techniques with each other to assist the distribution process.
For Theresa Hatathlie, Relief Fund Logistics Coordinator, who organized wood and coal hauls, these endeavors wouldn’t have been possible without the help of volunteers. In total, the elder heating assistance program hauled over 200 cords of firewood and 148 tons of coal.
“For our second elder wood haul, we had 12 trucks and hauled over 140 cords of wood to our storage site. This wood will be distributed directly to our elders aged 65 and over,” Hatathlie said. “The last haul we did, we were able to provide heating assistance to approximately 210 elders’ households. Our volunteers are the backbone of these wood hauls.”
The wood that was donated by Coconino National Forest and the coal that was donated by Navajo Transitional Energy Company was distributed to over 3,000 elders in over 80 communities on the Navajo and Hopi nations. Many of these elders lack access to electrical and gas heating, and couldn’t simply flip a switch to keep their homes warm. This made contact-free access to wood and coal for home heating purposes essential.
Hatathlie also coordinates the Relief Fund’s Eastern and Western Seamstress Program that sews and distributes masks across the Navajo and Hopi Nations. At one point, the Seamstress Program had 465 volunteer seamstresses sewing masks, hospital gowns, and related PPE that the Relief Fund distributed to community members, hospital staff, schools, and first responders.
“At the height of the program, we had a huge movement going. It became so huge that coordinating mask donations was quite a task,” Hatathlie said. “We started to receive donations of gowns, shoe covers, scrub caps and face visors. People were sharing our address and we began receiving mask donations in the tens of thousands.”
The volunteer seamstresses produced over 113,000 sewn PPE items, and generated another 100,000 in-kind donations of PPE. Hatathlie said that each and every mask was sterilized and individually packaged according to standards put in place by the CDC before being distributed to local communities.
The Relief Fund recognizes the great impacts that its volunteers have made on these efforts and expressed its gratitude by issuing volunteer bonuses and volunteer appreciation awards. The Relief Fund has also highlighted volunteer efforts and raffled off prepaid credit cards, gift certificates, new sewing machines, and new sets of tires to volunteers and staff on the group’s weekly Volunteer & Staff Appreciation Facebook Live events.
“Since the origins of our work at the Relief Fund, the volunteer response has been tremendous on so many fronts,” Branch said. “Our volunteers have created a momentum of productivity and effectiveness that the Relief Fund couldn’t have harnessed without their help. They are selfless, unwavering and effective. On behalf of the Relief Fund, I greatly appreciate your help and thank you for everything you’ve done to keep our elders and those most vulnerable safe during this most trying of times.”
Relief Fund Deputy Director Cassandra Begay said, “What set the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund apart is that we manifested a collective community power to mobilize and protect our most sacred and vulnerable community members. Our efforts were motivated by our traditional teachings of self-reliance, kinship, matriarchy, and caring for others–values our incredible volunteers and staff embody beautifully. These ancestral teachings have proven effective.”
“As we move forward, building with this type of community care will be imperative to helping each other through future, climate change-related natural disasters,” she said. “As an organization, we are committed to this type of collective community building.”
Please visit www.navajohopisolidarity.org