050421-Mutual Aid-CPT

Christopher Tomlinson/The Daily Sentinel

Stephania Vasconez, executive director of Grand Junction Mutual Aid, sorts donations during a food drive at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Church, 536 Oruay Ave. Some of the donations will be delivered to the Navajo Nation reservation in the Southwest.

The coronavirus pandemic ravaged nearly every corner of the globe, but its effects were particularly acute in areas that were already struggling with poverty, health care or food access.

Local retired archeologist Sally Crum, who worked on the Navajo Nation reservation for five years, became aware last summer of the harsh impacts the pandemic was having on the Navajo people.

A friend of Crum’s told her about members of the Montrose Presbyterian Church taking food and supplies to the Grace Community Church in Chinle, Arizona. There, Pastor Joe Begay and his wife, Gerri Begay, distributed the supplies monthly to the Navajo community.

Crum also learned that Teri Roth and Tim Kral, members of the downtown Grand Junction Vineyard Church, had been collecting food since spring and driving a truck every month more than 250 miles one-way to Dennehotso, Arizona, a Navajo town near Kayenta, Arizona.

There, a Native American couple distributed supplies to many older people on the reservation and others facing food hardships during the pandemic. Kral and Roth also took donated medical supplies on separate monthly trips to a nonprofit clinic in Monument Valley, also on the Navajo Nation reservation.

Crum followed suit, as she and her friends began gathering donations from Grand Junction residents and driving them to Montrose to be later taken to Chinle.

Another friend, Sandy Dorr, an author and writing tutor who is an active member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Grand Valley in downtown Grand Junction, asked her community to help. Church members began filling the entry hallway each month with donations that went to both groups.

But by January, when the Navajo reservation recorded the highest level of COVID-19 cases in the entire U.S., and the casinos were closing, eliminating more than 1,400 jobs, Dorr and Crum decided to take their efforts a step further.

Crum called churches on the reservation; Gloria Hosteen, administrator at Christ the King Parish in Shiprock, New Mexico, told her they had elders and families coming in begging for food, but the food supplies had run out. Dorr put out a post on her Facebook page explaining the amplified suffering and the need for donations.

The response filled half the Unitarian sanctuary. Drum, Dorr, Carole Lowry and JoLynn Tillman drove the donations, which filled an entire U-Haul and two SUVs, to both the Shiprock church and a Cortez warehouse of Four Corners Mutual Aid, another nonprofit helping tribal people.

“I couldn’t even reply to everyone on the page that responded,” Dorr said. “What I found when so many people I didn’t know or had never met showed up, plus people I hadn’t seen in a decade, was that this went beyond boundaries, beyond politics. We really discovered that the Grand Valley has a grand heart.”

Both the Navajo and Hopi nations have been longtime food deserts. Across their combined 29,945-square-mile territory, only 13 full-scale grocery stores exist. Food shortages only intensified as COVID-19 cases swept through the reservations, often leaving store shelves barren.

The pandemic also led to the closures of many tribal businesses, worsening an already dire situation, as unemployment rates throughout the Navajo and Hopi nations were already upwards of 50%.

Lacking the proper infrastructure to respond to the rapid spread of coronavirus throughout the reservations, deaths spiked.

“I felt like I was watching the destruction of a culture, and there wasn’t enough being done to address it,” Dorr said. “We’re all losing a percentage of our older people, but when Native Americans lose an elder, they may be losing the only person near them that speaks the language, or someone who knows rituals that haven’t yet been passed on, so it’s been very hard for them.”

Another Unitarian food and clothing drive in March tripled the January donations. Several volunteer drivers, including Penny and Irwin Stewart and Sam and Terry McGovern, drove supplies to Bluff, Utah, where a distribution center gives out supplies to Navajo, Hopi and Ute people.

“I knew that the people coming in to help were far to the right and far to the left and in between, politically. And there were people from all different churches, and people who didn’t go to church, so many others, but they were all really concerned about tribal people. And I think somewhere in our hearts, we know that the Native American situation needs some kind of reconciliation, and that tribal people deserve more from us, to put it in a very minor way,” Dorr said.

“What we’re doing in the food drives is really acting as neighbors to people who matter to us.”