A nation in need: Summit County residents help Navajo during pandemic

Summit County residents Cheri Breeman and Lisa White sort goods to be donated to members of the Navajo Nation living on Hopi Partitioned Land in Arizona. Breeman has been volunteering in the area for over 20 years while White helped set up an online fundraiser and visited the reservation with Breeman in June.
Photo from Cheri Breeman

FRISCO — Months have passed since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and for the most part, people have generally returned to a state of normalcy in their day-to-day lives. School and work have resumed — albeit virtually for some — masks have been normalized and patrons are leaving their homes to dine or shop. Local hospitals aren’t at capacity nor are supplies like hand sanitizer at a premium. 

But Native Americans without that privilege lack those luxuries. 

Access to running water, electricity and other basic needs were issues in the Navajo Nation long before COVID-19. Add in lockdowns, curfews and miles of unpaved dirt roads connecting remote homes, and you have a community that is struggling. According the Navajo Nation Department of Health, which oversees the 27,000-square-mile reservation, there have been 10,119 positive COVID-19 cases and 548 confirmed deaths as of Sunday, Sept. 20.

For over two decades, Summit County resident Cheri Breeman has been traveling to the Big Mountain area, also known as Black Mesa, on Hopi Partitioned Land in Arizona to volunteer and lend a hand wherever it is needed. She drives roughly nine hours from Dillon to Sedona, Arizona, four to five times a year with a pickup truck full of items. She then drives another three hours to drop off the groceries, water, clothes, medication, dog food, school supplies and more at the reservation to support about 25-30 families.

“It’s just part of my personality to help other people,” Breeman said. “I’m a teacher. I see the need, and the need is so incredible, and I can’t not help because life has been so good to me. So why not help people who are less fortunate?”

Breeman first got introduced to the community via Navajo activist Katherine Smith, who was featured in the 1985 Academy Award-wining documentary “Broken Rainbow” that details the Navajo and Hopi being relocated due to the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act. Breeman has always been interested in Native American culture, and after taking a class on it at University of Northern Colorado in the ’90s, she invited Katherine Smith to speak at her Dillon Valley Elementary class.

Breeman drove Katherine Smith back to Arizona and a friendship formed. She naturally developed a bond with Katherine Smith’s daughter, Marykatherine Smith, which lasts to this day, years after Katherine Smith died. 

According to Marykatherine Smith, while there is relief provided by other nonprofits and the government, Breeman is focusing on providing resources to those who are too sick or don’t have the transportation to reach distribution centers. The water Breeman brings is used to wash hands, dishes and clothes in addition to hydrating herding dogs and sheep. Donated propane means they can cook food. The focus now is on solar collectors and batteries so the Navajo can refrigerate food and rely less on kerosene lanterns come winter’s dark days.

“A lot of people were caught off guard because they weren’t prepared,” Smith said. “They didn’t have more than a week’s worth of groceries at home. … There are those like myself who live in really remote areas where a grocery store is 120 miles — a whole day’s drive — away.”

Shelf-stable goods are purchased from a store miles away from the Navajo reservation to be donated. Without electricity, the Navajo have limited means of refrigeration and many didn’t have a stockpile of food when the pandemic hit.
Photo from Cheri Breeman

Smith, an at-home health care provider who is no stranger to volunteering, trained with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in proper health protocols to handle deliveries safely. Though drop-offs sometimes wouldn’t be far away in mileage, the state of the roads makes it deceptively long. Breeman compared the driving conditions to the off-road trails around Montezuma, such as Radical Hill, but not as steep.

“One time, we distributed goods to eight family units,” Breeman said. “It took us 10 hours to get to those units because they’re so far apart.”

Word of Breeman’s volunteer work is known among her neighbors, and people frequently will leave items on her porch to be donated on the next trip. This year, her friend Lisa White set up a GoFundMe fundraiser for the reservation in April. White saw it as a way to help out given the recent uptick in activism and social justice across the country.

It first had a goal of $3,000 and has been periodically raised as people donated more and more. As of Tuesday, Sept. 22, there has been over $15,300 donated. Breeman and Smith have been blown away by the response and said some individuals gave as much as $2,000. The fundraiser has no end goal or date.

Last week, Breeman was able to purchase seven solar systems for seven families but still needs reimbursement funds.

“The needs are still the same, but they’re worse because of COVID,” Breeman said. “… I’m amazed at how much help we’re getting.”

Half of the musical group Duende Duette with her partner Leon Joseph Littlebird, White also has an affinity for Native American culture. She didn’t pass up the chance to join Breeman and Smith on a June trip to the reservation to volunteer.

They slept in sleeping bags on dirt floors in traditional homes called hogans, and White said she enjoyed the open spaces. While White hadn’t seen anything like it before, having only driven through reservations without stopping, she said she is familiar with underserved populations from her previous work at Mind Springs Health.

“It wasn’t a depressing experience where my eyes were opened,” White said. “We have poverty in this county with people being homeless.”

White is looking forward to returning again soon. Though she wishes Summit residents will contribute what they can, she also said people should not be shy about helping out their local communities and hopes this will inspire people to do so.

“We forget that our neighbor, who may be putting on a good face next door, might be suffering just as badly and needing as much help,” White said. “Don’t think you have to wait for an experience like this to go help somebody. You can do it right today.”

Marykatherine Smith loads spray bottles for sanitizer and other supplies into a truck. Hand sanitizer is valuable for the Navajo during the pandemic because access to running water for hand-washing is scarce.
Photo from Cheri Breeman

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