In a pandemic, Navajo community steps up for its vulnerable

TEESTO, Ariz. (AP) — For as long as Raymond Clark has lived alone on this quiet stretch of the Navajo Nation under the watch of the “Praying Mountain,” he has depended on everyone yet no one.

The 71-year-old has no vehicle or running water but is content hitchhiking and carrying jugs down a dusty washboard road to replenish his supply. He works at home in Teesto painting murals and silversmithing, but friends often stop by.

Or at least they did before the pandemic. Now, rides and visits are scarcer in an area with no grocery store or gas station and where homes sit far apart.

The sense of community, though, never faded. With residents urged to stay home, tribal workers, health representatives and volunteers have stepped up efforts to ensure the most vulnerable citizens get the help they need.

“Our grandmas and grandpas teach us, you have to give back to your people,” said Sophia Francis, secretary for the Teesto Chapter, one of 110 tribal precincts that make up the vast reservation that extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. “We have to help our elders. We have to help the community.”

Clark is among hundreds who live within the rural chapter, which functioned as a community lifeline even before the pandemic.

On a recent day, he stepped outside his home in the midst of juniper trees and greeted a trio of Teesto Chapter employees who were unloading firewood from a flatbed trailer. It was unseasonably warm, but Clark knew he’d need the wood for frigid days ahead.

Beside hauling wood, the chapter has filled water cisterns at people’s homes, arranged for a monthly food bank distribution, provided septic cleaning and a one-time supply of propane during the pandemic. A tribal lawmaker also distributed hay.

“The biggest thing I was trying to encourage is for people not to travel,” said Clara Tsosie, the chapter manager.

In many ways, the groundwork had already been laid. When Tsosie was hired as a chapter planner in 2015, she worked on a rural addressing system that included GPS coordinates to every home. Community assessments mean Teesto knows who needs a bathroom addition, water or wood.

The Winslow Indian Health Care Center worked with Teesto and other chapters in its service area to bring the wood split and ready to be delivered.

A network of community health representatives track who needs roads cleared to get dialysis, medication or emergency assistance. Many times, they go door to door to check on people. That practice has been amplified by the pandemic, with representatives disinfecting themselves and their vehicles at each visit, honking the horn when they arrive and talking to residents through windows or screen doors.

“They are thankful; they are appreciative,” said Sheila Bedoni, who oversees the health representatives in the Winslow-area unit. “And sometimes we show up when there’s…

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