SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, May 16, 2020 (Gephardt Daily) — It was Tuesday, May 12, when Salt Lake City resident Moroni Benally received a call from a friend from the Navajo Nation Reservation, asking if he could help out with a dire situation.
Eugenia Charles-Newton, a Navajo Nation Council delegate and chairwoman of the Law and Order Committee, called the amiable Benally — whose unsuccessful run for Navajo Nation president was chronicled in the independent film “Moroni for President.” She asked if he could recommend northern Utah stores that might have bleach for sale.
The plan of Charles-Newton and several others she works with was to use their limited finances to shop for supplies away from their home near Shiprock, New Mexico, where a single grocery serves the community and that, due to the pandemic, rarely has high-demand items such as Spam and bleach.
The Spam and other canned meats are important because about a third of the area’s Navajo residents lack electricity for refrigeration, and many who do only got it a generation or two earlier, which gives Spam and similar preserved meats the status of a “traditional” food in the community’s diet.
As for why the bleach is important, Charles-Newton said, because “bleach is life.”
The Navajo Nation has a higher percentage of COVID-19 cases than any U.S. state, according to reports. Recent (2016) figures show that 356,890 people live on the Navajo Reservation. As of Saturday, the Navajo Department of Health reported 3,912 cases of COVID-19, and 140 deaths.
Many Navajo Nation residents live without access to running water, so the traditional soap-and-water combination typically used for cleaning is not an option.
“Families with members who are sick need Clorox or Lysol wipes to wipe down equipment, like the oxygen tanks,” Charles-Newton said. “People with the virus need to clean constantly to keep it from spreading. People who are quarantined can’t go out for supplies, and a family member goes for them. The stores are out of what they need, the things that can save their lives.”
So Charles-Newton, her husband and her fellow volunteers decided to make a trip to Utah, hoping stores would be better stocked. Would Benally help guide them to stores with supplies, which would be distributed free to those in need in the Shiprock area, she asked.
“I asked Moroni, who spent part of his life on the reservation, if he could help us find the stores. He said, ‘Let me see if we could do a drive.'”
On Tuesday, Benally — who works for causes including seeking justice for murdered Native American women — posted a note on his Facebook page. He asked if his network of friends and fellow volunteers might be able to donate anything on a very specific list of items: Clorox/bleach, Lysol, Clorox wipes, Spam, canned corned beef and hand sanitizers.
A few said they could, and others asked him to make the post public, so they could share it. Donations began to trickle in, then crowd the living room of his modest home.
Each donation was wiped down with bleach and inventoried before finding a holding spot in front of his sofa.
By Wednesday and Thursday, word was spreading faster, and strangers as well as friends were showing up with supplies. Volunteers joined in to help sanitize and inventory the small-but-growing mountain of donations.
By Thursday and Friday, Benally was asking his friends for donations of strong, empty boxes to hold the dozens of donations. And he was warning Charles-Newton she might want to bring a bigger truck.
“I was just trying to get information from Moroni,” she said. “He really came through for us. I am grateful that I know someone like that is in my life, who I can reach out to. Moroni said, ‘You might just need two trucks — then we got a message that we might need a trailer.”
By Saturday morning, Charles-Newton, her husband and her fellow volunteers were on their way to Utah to pick up donations, since collection was slated to stop at 5 p.m.
“It sounds like he’s got some stuff we truly need,” Charles-Newton told Gephardt Daily from the road. “We can’t wait to see what Moroni has for the Navajo Nation.”
Other groups are donating goods to the Navajo Nation in her area, Charles-Newton said. Several, including a veterans group and a local church, are helping a lot by donating what they can get to families that are able to drive to a specific spot for pickup.
But not all residents have access to transportation or are well enough to travel, Charles-Newton said.
Her group of volunteers hopes to deliver boxes to residents after collecting information about the needs of specific households. In nearby communities within the Navajo Nation, the group plans to give donations to locally elected leaders for distribution, Charles-Newton said.
“We are getting requests from communities who no one is servicing,” she said.
Charles-Newton said she has often been asked why she can’t take more healthful food to the people, and she says she would like to, but without refrigeration, any leftovers would be spoiled within a day or two, “then families would have the same problem as before.”
Charles-Newton said she does hope to incorporate fresh vegetables and fruit at some point, and that the need will continue for some time because Navajo Nation COVID-19 cases have not yet peaked.
She could not wait to see the supplies and load them up for distribution for families in need, Charles-Newton said on Saturday morning.
“I love my community and will do what I can to help them during this time.”
Benally, a modest man who preferred to let Charles-Newton do the talking about the project, could not resist one giddy post after the Saturday night collection deadline had passed.
“I’ve been dubbed Clorox King,” he wrote. “Thank you all. Over 1,000 bottles of bleach, hundreds of gallons of hand sanitizer, hundreds of sanitizing wipes, over 1000 cans of SPAM/corned beef.”
Charles-Newton said there are no firm plans in place yet for a followup drive, but she would let Gephardt Daily know when that happens.