Utah food program shares abundance with others
By Krista Allen
Special to the Times
The Navajo Nation was already in an economic slump and some Diné families were already struggling even before the arrival of the coronavirus, said Pete Sands.
“There’s a lot of depression,” said Sands, the public relations specialist for Utah Navajo Health System. “It’s hard to explain because things are already tough in the Navajo Nation and a pandemic on top of that, it just makes things a little more depressing.”
As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase in Utah and Arizona and the weekly death toll matches that of heart disease, Sands and his colleague, Sahar Khadjenoury, along with their volunteers, are spreading love and kindness.
They are lifting people’s spirits through volunteer work, words of encouragement, inspiration, music and dancing, loads of firewood, boxes of food, and now weekly boxes of food for the holidays.
“We try our best to help lift people’s spirits and help relieve them of some stress with some food,” said Sands, who created both the Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief Program and Warming Hogans, a firewood project to serve Utah Diné elders and residents of the Utah chapters.
Sands said both programs branched out recently into Western and Northern Navajo to help more people, especially the vulnerable and those forced to self-isolate. Sands, Khadjenoury, and their volunteers every Tuesday show up in Tsébii’ndzisgaii to give out SunTerra food boxes.
Sands said the food boxes were made possible through his programs’ partnership with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Utah Farm Bureau, and Newport Beach, California-based SunTerra Produce Traders, which was awarded a contract last summer under the Families Food Box Program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The SunTerra food boxes contain a number of items, including potatoes, apples, milk, yogurt and eggs. The food truck is in Oljato-Monument Valley – outside the Welcome Center – every Tuesday and in Montezuma Creek – at the old Mussi clinic – every Thursday. Utah, Western and Northern chapters may begin pickup at 9 a.m., after which the general public may begin pickup at 10 a.m. at both sites until the end of the year.
“So we came together, collaborated and we made this happen,” Sands said. “We all came together to help for the holidays. We (informed) chapters like Ts’ahbiikin, Shonto – hopefully, they’ll come out as well. “We have enough to give to the chapters beyond Utah,” he said. “And that was our goal — to go beyond Utah to help others closest to the Utah border. It’s been going well.”
The coronavirus has warped life in Diné Bikéyah, which has 16,427 cases and 653 deaths as of Nov. 29, and many Diné families are grieving losses to COVID-19, including employment, identity, and the need to start over.
Grieving the losses
In addition to the loss of life and health and jobs and income, Oljato-Monument Valley Chapter President Albert Holiday said people are also dealing with the loss of family gatherings, events and smaller losses that affect emotional health. “Some of the families, we lost some people out here to the virus,” said Holiday, whose chapter is now well educated on the virus and how a simple, low-tech, effective intervention such as hand-washing can reduce the risk of infection.
“After every (regular chapter) meeting, we travel through the community and we tell people to wear their mask because the disease is dangerous,” he said. “At first, we had a hard time telling people.” As many Diné families began to use cloth facemasks to slow the spread of the deadly virus, people also learned it can attack a particular receptor in cells and how it can affect organs beyond the lungs, said Holiday.
“And they listen to the radio and watch the news on TV. They know what it is,” Holiday said. “I’m always thinking about my people. And other people are helping us. It really helps.” Drive-thru food pantries have become the safest, most efficient way for programs like the Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief Program to provide help since the start of the pandemic.
They run smoothly. People pull up to the pickup area in their vehicles and are guided to a clearly marked queue. Staff guides visitors through as quickly and safely as possible. But it’s sad to see Diné having to go to a drive-thru food pantry, said Amanda Begay, a licensed practical nurse at the Monument Valley Community Health Center.
“To see food drive-throughs, it’s sad for me to see because we never thought we would experience this,” Begay said as tears trickled down her cheeks and onto her N95 mask. “Our people are hurting and there’s a lot of families who are out of work.”
Begay said many of the people here have jobs in the local tourism industry, but the pandemic has changed the way people travel, meaning the wound is deep, it hasn’t stopped bleeding yet and people are still out of a job because the Navajo parks are still closed.
“They provide for their family through tourism and there hasn’t been any this year with the parks being closed,” said Begay, who wore her floral ch’ah, a reminder of her grandmother’s strength, while volunteering at the drive-thru food pantry two weeks ago.
“There are not very many people who are traveling to see our Navajo Nation,” she said. “It’s hard to see. So having to see our people lining up like this to get assistance with food, it’s heartbreaking. It’s hard to sleep.”
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month urged people to avoid travel for the holidays and to celebrate with only members of immediate households.
“But people are traveling,” said Revina Talker, the primary care provider and manager at Navajo Mountain Community Health Center, who’s also a physician assistant in the emergency room at Gallup Indian Medical Center. “So when they travel, they start spreading the virus,” she said. “We want people to stay home. It would help so much if people would self-isolate and stop the spread. That’s the biggest thing. That’s the most important thing we can do right now, is to stay home … and protect your family.”
Talker said this is the reason for Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief Program’s and Warming Hogan’s drive-thru holiday food pantry: So people can stay home on Thanksgiving (and on Christmas) and reassess plans for the upcoming holidays. “This weekend, I had to tell two elders they have COVID-19 and it was so sad,” Talker said, crying, “and it makes me sad because we have to protect our elders.”
Talker, along with her volunteers including her husband, last Tuesday traveled to Oljato-Monument Valley to pick up seven pallets of holiday food boxes for her Naatsis’áán-Rainbow City community. Her volunteers that evening and the next morning delivered food boxes to families without transportation across Paiute Canyon and toward the Navajo Canyon area.
The rest were given out to families through a drive-through at Naatsis’áán Chapter House. “We have a lot of elders (in Naatsis’áán-Rainbow City),” Talker said. “We have a lot of multigenerational families. So, one family gets one box. If a household has multiple families, they will get multiple boxes to take home with them. “It should be able to help sustain them for at least a week and to help them get the nutrition that they need,” she said, “preventing them from having to travel.”
A big deal
Talker said it’s a big deal because both Utah and Arizona are faced with a seemingly unstoppable surge in COVID-19 infections. “No matter what you believe in – whether you believe in God, Jesus, in our Diné tradition – it doesn’t matter, just as long as you believe (and have faith) in your prayers and we come to an agreement in prayer, we’ll overcome this pandemic together,” Amanda Begay said as she looked at the line of vehicles waiting to receive food. “It’s important to come together in unity,” she said, “in prayer that one day we won’t have to live like this again.”
Pete Sands, a well-known singer-songwriter, musician, filmmaker, actor, and a good Samaritan, said it’s challenging to run elite programs like the ones he created because a lot goes into them, such as territorial battles and politics. “It’s hard,” he said. “It takes a lot out of you. There was a time when I was so stressed. There was a time I wanted to leave – just drop it all and leave. You get a lot of people who dump on you.
“But when you hand people food, they’re happy and it makes it that much better,” he said. “It makes it all worth it.” Sands said it’s the Diné – the elders and the happy families at the end of the day – who keep him going. “Sahar’s always been with me,” Sands added. “Whatever crazy idea I have, she always goes along with it. She’s like, ‘Hey, you haven’t steered us wrong yet.’”