Amanda Yazzie and Hector Begaye pose for a photo after handing out all of the personal protective equipment kits provided by the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund. As omicron surges, there’s a renewed demand for PPE, and Yazzie and Begay gave out 200 kits in less than 90 minutes. (Photo by Shondiin Silversmith / Arizona Mirror)
Parked in front of a Bashas in Dilkon, near the southern boundary of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Amanda Yazzie and Hector Begaye take a quick break inside their work van to enjoy some lunch, even as multiple vehicles continued to stop at the driver’s side window to honk for their attention.
Some vehicles move on as soon as the team makes gestures to indicate there are no more free personal protective equipment kits, while others wouldn’t move until Yazzie rolled down the driver-side window to explain.
“We’re all out,” Yazzie said to a person inside a grey SUV. “We only brought 200 (PPE kits), so it went fast.”
Yazzie and Begaye are part of the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund, a grassroots-led non-profit organization that focuses on providing essential items to the Navajo and Hopi people who are directly impacted by the pandemic.
“We get noticed a lot,” Yazzie said because of the van. They’re driving a sprinter van that is wrapped in the Navajo & Hopi COVID-19 Relief Funds logo and motto.
“When they see us, they automatically think ‘PPE,’” Yazzie added, and people will take it upon themselves to ask them for personal protective equipment, even when they’re not set up for an event.
“It’s hard to turn people away, because you can see they need it,” Begaye said. “The demand is still high.”
The team set up a drive-thru PPE distribution event at the Bashas parking lot in Dilkon on Jan. 14. The event was scheduled for four hours, but all the kits were gone in 90 minutes.
The kits include two disinfectant wipes, three bottles of hand sanitizer, and a box of 50 three-ply masks.
The Navajo & Hopi COVID-19 Relief Fund started its relief efforts when the pandemic broke out in March 2020 and has multiple programs set in place to provide aid, including their PPE distribution program, which started in November 2020.
“These PPE items are very hard to access and it’s hard to find,” said Cassandra Begay, deputy director of the nonprofit relief fund.
“Something that’s vital in this type of work is diversifying resources and partnerships,” she said. At their Chinle distribution site, they work closely with leaders at the Chinle Chapter House to make sure it operates smoothly.
Begay said her organization has been a major lifeline in moving the resources they receive quickly and efficiently to the Navajo and Hopi communities they serve.
We’re helping the next person who’s running out of masks. The grandmas and grandpas with dirty masks on because they don’t know where to get another box from or they just don’t have it.
– Hector Begaye
The distributions are advertised through social media, and so far they’ve been able to host one event each day of the week at various locations across the Navajo and Hopi nations. The events are open to the public, and anyone can receive a kit.
In its first nine months, the PPE Distribution Program hosted 366 free events. They’ve delivered and distributed over seven million masks, and more than 140,000 eight-ounce hand sanitizer bottles and packages of disinfectant wipes
Between September 2021 and December 2021, the program delivered free PPE to 13 Navajo Senior Centers for 926 Elders, Begay said. It has also provided PPE for eight Navajo schools, and delivered more than 1,900 PPE kits to 34 communities.
In the last few weeks, she said the program has delivered free PPE to 17 communities, which equates to approximately 199,000 masks and 14,170 bottles of hand sanitizer and packages of disinfectant wipes.
“It’s a top priority for us, because PPE can save lives — and we’ve been providing PPE since 2020,” Begay said. They distribute between 800 and 1500 PPE kits across the Navajo and Hopi Nation each week.
“People are grateful for our service,” she said, and they’ve been told it’s been comforting for communities across the Navajo and Hopi Nation because there is a group out there still providing this type of support. “They were really glad that we were there to help them.”
There are seven teams that work to cover as much ground as possible across the vast expanses of the Navajo Nation — the 27,000 square-mile territory is largely in Arizona, but also includes land in New Mexico and Utah — as well as among the villages within the Hopi Nation.
The organization is getting “hammered” with requests right now, Begay said, but they are trying their best to fulfill all of them promptly.
Deciding where to go to distribute PPE is based on the communities pointed out in the Navajo Nation Department of Health’s daily COVID-19 updates: They look at the hotspot lists provided by the Office of the Navajo Nation President and Vice President and see where they can go that week.
“A majority of people that come through say thank you,” Begaye said.
As part of their distribution protocol, they don’t reach into vehicles and often place the kits in the trunk or on the hood of the vehicle for the recipient to retrieve after they pull away from the event.
“The demand right now has increased widely,” Begaye said, and he attributes that to the influx of positive COVID-19 cases happening on the Navajo Nation.
Since the New Year began, the Navajo Nation has reported more than 3,000 new cases, the highest reported on Jan. 14 at 525, according to data from the Navajo Nation Department of Health.
In response, the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund increased their PPE distribution and they’re sending out teams to various locations across the Navajo and Hopi Nation to set up distribution events weekly.
Yazzie and Begaye are part of the team that responds to communities in the southwestern region of the Navajo Nation, including Jeddito White Cone, Indian Wells, Greasewood, Silkon, Teesto, Bird Springs, Leupp and Tolani Lake, as well as the villages on the Hopi Nation.
“We do this for the people because the aid is necessary,” Begaye said. While the Navajo Nation government is also helping out the Navajo people in their way, the work he’s doing with Navajo & Hopi Families is providing that one-on-one direct relief aid.
“We call ourselves the militia, the footmen, because we’re on the front line and in the thick of it,” Yazzie said. And since cases have been increasing, they’ve been working non-stop: “The burnout is real.”
Begaye said the rewarding nature of the work keeps them going.
“We’re helping the next person who’s running out of masks,” he said. “(The) grandmas and grandpas with dirty masks on because they don’t know where to get another box from or they just don’t have it. We provide that to them.”
Yazzie said providing direct relief aid makes her feel good because she loves her people, culture and everything about the Navajo Nation.
She admits she has a soft spot for the elders that come to their distributions, and it makes her feel good when she sees a smile on their faces after they receive their kits.
“The gratitude that they show when they say: ‘Ahéhee’, shiyázhí (Thank you, my child).’ That feels good,” Yazzie said. But she also wants the Navajo people to understand that the virus is still around.
“We have to remind them that we’re still in the pandemic,” she added.
Begaye said there’s no denying the need for the work they’re doing.
“I’m going to keep doing this work because somebody’s got to do it,” he said. “The relief work (has) got to get done, and if we have that support and that funding to get this stuff done, let’s do it.”
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