Non-profit provides relief for COVID-positive Navajo & Hopi families

By: - February 15, 2022 4:00 am

Glenda Wheeler checks her shopping list during a recent trip to the Bashas’ in Window Rock, where she and other volunteers regularly shop for Navajo and Hopi families that are in isolation or quarantine because of COVID-19. Wheeler is a local team leader for the Navajo & Hopi COVID-19 Relief Fund’s Direct Relief Program. (Photo by Shondiin Silversmith / Arizona Mirror)

Glenda Wheeler handed a list of food items to her helpers for the day as they all stood behind their shopping carts inside the Window Rock Bashas’, ready to shop.

Wheeler let them know they are serving four families today, and everything listed on the shopping list needed to be purchased to fulfill the request.

She divided the team into two groups, telling them to pay attention to the list and mark off the items as they were collected.

Once the groups started moving, she looked at the Community Health Representative (CHR) helping her shop for the day and gave a simple direction: “Follow me.”

Wheeler moved quickly toward the aisle, holding up her shopping list as the CHR pulled up behind her. 

“We’re getting the ramen noodles,” she said to him as she took her pen to her shopping list. “Get eight of them,” she said as she crossed noodles off the list.

The food that Wheeler and her team purchased would soon be delivered to Navajo families who are currently in quarantine or isolated due to COVID-19, as part of the Direct Relief Program operated by the Navajo & Hopi COVID-19 Relief Fund.

The Direct Relief Program is available to those living on the Navajo and Hopi Nations who are currently sick with COVID-19 and are isolated or have been exposed to a confirmed case of COVID and are currently quarantining.

“My job is to serve COVID-positive families that are in quarantine at home,” Wheeler said. “My job is to go out and serve my people, help my people and assist my people that are in quarantine that are struggling with COVID in the family.”

The goal, she said, is to help keep COVID-19 from spreading. Providing people with the essentials keeps them from having to choose between following quarantine and going hungry.

“We have to help one another and provide all the necessary items so they can stay home,” she said.

She has shopped for hundreds of families over the last few months and can confidently say she knows the layout of Bashas’ like the back of her hand.

“I have it memorized,” she said. “We know the store from one side to the other.”

Once they were all done shopping, Wheeler worked with the Community Health Representatives to load their truck with the food and goods for the families they were serving. They buy anything from water to fresh produce, from dog food to hygiene products to baby formula. Each aid box contains enough food to last a family of four up to two weeks.

The supplies were soon on their way to four families in the Fort Defiance area. Wheeler often partners with CHR’s because they know the service areas well and the families that are often recipients of the program.

More than $500 worth of food and goods were loaded into a CHR’s truck that day. 

Helping victims of the virus

Wheeler has been working with the Direct Relief Program since October, but she’s worked for the Navajo & Hopi COVID-19 Relief Fund before. She worked with them for over a year during the height of the pandemic before she left in early 2021 to get some rest. The organization asked her to come back in the fall, and she said she agreed because she likes to help her people.

Wheeler is originally from Steamboat, a Navajo community just east of Hopi tribal lands, but she set up her base of operation at the nearby Ganado chapter house, collaborating with the Ganado chapter president and council delegate to run her operation out of their facilities because it makes it easier for her to deliver in her service areas.

Since there are only two of them on the team, Wheeler said it’s nice to have people from the community volunteer their time to help her fulfill requests. They help her in various ways, from packing the boxes to sanitizing all the goods and making deliveries.

Glenda Wheeler works out of the Ganado Chapter House to organize provisions for Navajo and Hopi families that are in isolation or quarantine because of COVID-19. Wheeler is a local team leader for the Navajo & Hopi COVID-19 Relief Fund’s Direct Relief Program. (Photo by Shondiin Silversmith / Arizona Mirror)

Ganado Chapter President Marcarlo Roanhorse has helped Wheeler pack boxes before, but he was also a recipient of the Direct Relief Program when his family tested positive for COVID-19 a few months ago.

Roanhorse said when his family tested positive, they took immediate action and ended up staying in quarantine for 15 days, and he’s grateful that Navajo & Hopi COVID-19 Relief was able to provide them with assistance.

They got fresh produce, non-perishables, vitamins, medication, teas, and a variety of other household items — all the things they needed to help sustain them for the duration of their quarantine.

“I’m very thankful for this program,” he said. “This program is needed for the purpose of providing services to encourage our relatives, our families, our Navajo community members, and our Hopi neighbors to stay in quarantine to stop the spread of COVID.”

Roanhorse said the collaborative efforts put into the relief that the organization provides are what make it such an important program.

“I became a victim to this virus,” Roanhorse said, and knowing that help was there when his family needed it was a relief.

“I understand the feeling that these recipients feel when they have that relief,” he added. “And that’s really what it is, is knowing that they have relief and the ability to rely on others.”

Wheeler’s territory is large, ranging from Sanders on the southern edge of the Navajo Nation to Fort Defiance near Arizona’s eastern border and north toward Pinon. She’s even traveled as far as Kayenta to pitch in and deliver aid packages.

She’ll partner with Community Health Representatives in the area to help fulfill more requests because she can’t get to all of them by herself.

The Direct Relief Program grew out of an immediate need when the delta variant of COVID-19 hit the Navajo Nation in 2021.

Navajo & Hopi COVID-19 Relief Fund Co-Founder Ethel Branch said the organization was hopeful in the Spring of 2021 because the numbers in the Navajo Nation were dropping and there was an “aggressive vaccination rollout.”

“We were very hopeful that we were through the worst of things with COVID here on Navajo and Hopi,” Branch said, but they monitored the situation constantly.

When the COVID-19 case numbers looked good in June, Branch said the organization wanted to shift its main work from direct relief work to more sustainable community work within the Navajo Nation.

“We were pretty much at the end of our budget for direct relief work, so we started to wind down our operations,” she said. They started to look to the future, which meant long-term work within the community.

But then the delta variant of COVID made its way onto the Navajo Nation, and by August, the number of positive cases was increasing again.

Branch said when cases went from single- to double-digits in June, to triple-digit cases by the end of August, the organization knew the situation was getting critical.

And that’s when they re-engaged their direct relief efforts. When cases started to pick back up, Branch said it may have been because the Navajo people were given this sense of false security and safety in the face of the delta variant because of the vaccination numbers the Navajo Nation government was providing at the time.

When the Navajo & Hopi COVID-19 Relief Fund leaders saw the numbers increase to over 400 positive cases per day by the end of August, Branch said it was clear that the Navajo Nation was not well-positioned to withstand the new variant.

“We were not well (prepared), and nobody is responding and preparing to protect our community because they’re all buying into this idea that we’re highly vaccinated and we’re going to be OK,” Branch said.

More than 400 families helped in 2021, more than 1,200 requests in January 2022

That’s when the organization launched its Delta Relief Program, which was later renamed the Direct Relief Program. Branch said the program took off slowly when they launched it, but soon grew to 17 teams working to meet requests for help, but as caseloads fell in the fall, they scaled back. Now, they’re trying to build back up to at least 14 teams to get through the surge of requests due to the spread of the omicron variant.

From September to December 2021, Branch said they were able to serve 426 families. In January alone, the Direct Relief Program had more than 1,200 help requests, Branch said.

As of Feb. 8, the Navajo Nation Department of Health has reported more than 6,800 new COVID-19 cases and 30 deaths since the beginning of the year. On Feb. 7, officials reported that 83 of the 110 chapters in the Navajo Nation were experiencing an uncontrollable spread within the communities.

This job is hard to do, you have to be strong, you have to be open-hearted, and you have to care for everybody. It’s important, because we need to help one another to overcome this virus.

– Glenda Wheeler, Direct Relief Program

Families that enter quarantine or isolation and need help with food and supplies can fill out a request form online, where they answer several questions related to the household. If families can’t do it online, they can call a hotline and work with a Navajo & Hopi COVID-19 Relief Fund team member to get the form filled out.

Due to high demand, requests are taking anywhere from 72 to 96 hours to be completed. Once a request is checked by the program director, it’s sent to team leaders like Wheeler to fulfill.

Wheeler said she delivers more than 30 requests some days.

The team follows a set shopping list, but augments their shopping to meet the needs of the household that can’t go to the store. So, if a family needs to have dog food and baby formula, they buy it for them.

“Everything’s provided,” she added.

Fulfilling a request involves shopping for a list of food that includes fresh produce, canned and dry goods. They also provide essential supplies such as toilet paper, hygienic products, and over-the-counter medication.

Each family is also provided with an isolation kit that contains at-home COVID-19 tests, PPE like KN95 mask and three-ply masks, disinfectant wipes and spray, hand sanitizer, a thermometer, and an oximeter with batteries.

“We wanted to give people the tools that they needed to, to minimize that spread in their household and minimize potential adverse impacts and loss of life,” Branch said. “There was a lot of thought and care and planning that went into the design of that program.”

For more information on the Navajo & Hopi COVID-19 Relief Fund, visit their website at navajohopisolidarity.org

In January, Wheeler said her team was shopping day and night to serve people. The work is difficult. Most days it’s just Wheeler, her teammate and a volunteer to fulfill requests. The teammate and volunteer both happen to be her daughters.

“This job is hard to do, you have to be strong, you have to be open-hearted, and you have to care for everybody,” Wheeler added. “It’s important, because we need to help one another to overcome this virus.”

For people who sign up for help with the Direct Relief Program, Branch said she hopes that they see that someone cares about them and that they matter because there is help for them through this difficult time.

“They shouldn’t be afraid,” she said. “They will get the help and the tools they need to stay safe.”

The organization is hoping to see a drop in requests this month as the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to decrease.

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Shondiin Silversmith, AZ Mirror
Shondiin Silversmith, AZ Mirror

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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