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‘Everyday heroes’: Navajo-Hopi relief effort boosted by Kellogg grant, Phoenix nurses

‘Everyday heroes’: Navajo-Hopi relief effort boosted by Kellogg grant, Phoenix nurses


In the past week, the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund, which has raised over $5.8 million since March, announced two major awards.

The fund received a $200,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and a $50,000 donation from a campaign launched by Phoenix nurses who wanted to help their Navajo and Hopi neighbors.

This infusion comes at an important time for the organization, which has remained dedicated to providing needed aid to Navajo and Hopi families since the beginning of the pandemic, and is now preparing for winter flu season, a possible second wave of COVID-19 and beyond.

“All we do night and day is try to find innovative and creative ways to bring relief to our communities,” said Deputy Director Cassandra Begay. The $50,000 contribution from the nurses led by Banner University Medical Center critical care nurse Lauren Leander, has gone toward much needed isolation kits for Navajo and Hopi individuals who are diagnosed with COVID-19 and need to separate from their families and communities. The kits include a two-week supply of healthy foods, vitamins, tents, sleeping bags, hand-washing stations, ice chests, and battery-operated fans to help people endure the isolation and illness.

“I hope these funds give Navajo and Hopi families the support and resources they need to continue to self-isolate, hand wash and protect themselves against COVID-19,” said Leander.

Begay said the $200K Kellogg grant will support the relief fund’s capacity building and long-term planning of relief efforts and food security in several ways, including establishing six permanent distribution centers and transitioning the volunteer program into an organization with permanent staff.

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“We are deeply appreciative of the commitment, love and devotion of the women who organized swiftly to respond to community needs,” stated W.K. Kellogg Foundation Program Officer Natasha K. Hale. “Because of their knowledge of systems and close relationships with community leaders, they were best positioned to respond.”

Guided by traditional values

When the Navajo and Hopi women, led by Navajo & Hopi Families Relief Fund founder Ethel Branch, began organizing the effort in March, they had no idea it would grow into the operation it is today, backed by nearly 93,000 supporters from around the world, said Begay.

Their goal initially was to do what they could to protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19, including elders and immune-compromised people. Branch said the traditional Navajo problem-solving model has helped serve as a foundation for the team’s growth and focus on strengthening communities.

“For our community to be safe, every smaller community and every individual needs to have that sense of empowerment and that ability to make a difference, which goes back to traditional principles of self-reliance and self-determination,” said Branch. “We’re always mindful of the cycle of thinking, planning, implementing, assessing, and improving.”

In the past six months, the team has trained an estimated 160 volunteers, and provided more than $2 million worth of food, water, cleaning supplies and Personal Protective Equipment to over 23,665 vulnerable Navajo and Hopi families, serving an estimated 94,660 people to date.

In their recent partnership with Air Serv International, funded by a $70,000 grant from the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading Foundation, the relief fund chartered 24 flights to remote Navajo and Hopi communities and delivered over 48,000 pounds of supplies in just six weeks, fueled by outside donations from all over the country.

Begay said the Kellogg grant will also support the expansion of partnerships with local farmers, food banks and seed banks with a focus on distribution and preservation of traditional heirloom fruits and vegetables as well as addressing infrastructure issues such as irrigation.

“We are excited that the Kellogg Foundation is willing to invest in distinctly Diné and Hopi solutions to the food security challenge that our ancestors designed and refined over centuries, and that our elders and young farmers continue to implement today,” noted Branch.

‘A match made in heaven’

Nurse Lauren Leander, 28, who has cared for patients at the Phoenix Banner University’s COVID-19 Unit since the beginning of the pandemic, says she feels lucky to have the opportunity to collaborate with relief fund’s leadership and to help families in need.

“It’s been amazing,” Leander said. “They started out the way that we did with our GoFundMe — just a few people who wanted to make a difference and are now doing big, important and meaningful things. “I feel it was sort of a match made in heaven to be able to work with them,” she said.

Leander said her GoFundMe campaign was inspired by an experience she and her colleagues – Brittney Schilling, Jasmine Bhatti, and Jade Juriansz-Hicks – had last April when they stood in silent protest in the face of angry demonstrators at the Arizona Capitol who were pushing to end the COVID-19 lockdown and open Arizona back up for business.

“No-one wanted to wear masks,” she said. “There was a very large group of people that didn’t believe that the virus was real and thought it was a hoax.”

Leander said it was terrifying because the nurses felt they had just started to get a handle on COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected Native Americans, and were seeing its devastating impacts first-hand. She said the nurses wanted to stand in solidarity with their patients and the vulnerable populations they serve, as well as help inform the public about the risks and gravity of the situation.

“As one of the biggest ICU’s in Arizona, we take patients from all over the Southwest,” she said. “We knew this thing was only beginning and we needed people to try to fight with us. Our plan was to do a protest just by standing silently with a mask on in counter-protest.”

Much to their surprise, the story of the outnumbered nurses courageously standing in their scrubs at the Capitol immediately hit the national news and drew thousands of supporters. “Our pictures went viral from the East Coast to the West Coast,” said Leander. “It was just four nurses wanting people to wear masks and listen to the truth about what was going on.”

She said the amount of support the nurses received was enormous and they wanted to find a way to harness that and help make a difference. “At my hospital, in particular, about 75% of our patients in our COVID-19 critical care unit were Navajo or Hopi,” said Leander.

She has seen multiple occasions where members of the same family infected with COVID-19 have been airlifted to Banner in critical condition. That is why the nurses decided to take action to support Navajo and Hopi families and Leander started the “Navajo and Hopi Community Relief” GoFundMe account that swiftly brought in over $285,000 in donations, which she administered.

Agents for change

“I wanted to give the money to the people,” said Leander. “I wanted to work with the people on the ground who already know what needs to be done and where the money needs to go.”

That is how Leander got connected with the Navajo & Hopi Families Relief team. “The only way through this pandemic is by helping each other,” stated Begay. “And every person has the ability to be a positive agent for change.” In identifying the specific needs on Navajo and Hopi, Leander learned that many of the health facilities were lacking in Personal Protective Equipment so she started working with a supplier on the East Coast to purchase PPE for frontline health-care workers.

In addition to the $50K that was donated to the relief fund for isolation kits, Leander said the rest of the funds have been used to purchase PPE and other items for Tuba City Regional Health Care, Chinle Comprehensive Health Care, and the Kayenta Health Center because they were short of supplies and in most need of PPE.

Begay indicated she sees a parallel between the dedication and solidarity of the nurses who wanted to make a difference and that of the members of the relief fund. “These strong women nurses are everyday heroes thrust into the spotlight while simply seeking to serve their communities,” stated the relief fund’s news release. “Their donation represents the combined efforts of tens of thousands who saw these nurses stand up for vulnerable patients.”



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