WINDOW ROCK, Ariz.-When Ethel Branch first launched a modest GoFundMe last March to help Navajo and Hopi elders and families withstand the impacts of COVID-19, she had no idea how quickly it would grow.
One year later, the grassroots Navajo-Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund has received over 100,000 donations, gifts and grants totaling $18 million and has forged partnerships and mobilized hundreds of volunteers to deliver humanitarian relief to thousands in need.
“The success of our fundraising campaign was driven by the deep kindness and generosity of so many beautiful-hearted people across this country, and indeed the world, who care about the well-being of the Navajo and Hopi people, and recognize our unique vulnerability in the face of COVID,” said Branch.
In turn, it’s been a blessing to be able to have a significant impact during the pandemic by ensuring people have what they need to protect their families, including essential food, water and personal protective equipment, she said.
Over $7.2 million has been raised through the original GoFundMe, and an unexpected, unsolicited $10 million gift came in in December from MacKenzie Scott, former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
According to a Dec. 15 disclosure by Scott on medium.com, she donated $4.2 billion to 384 organizations in late 2020 that had worked in marginalized communities to alleviate suffering caused by the pandemic.
“We didn’t even know we were being considered,” said Branch. “I literally almost fell out of my chair when they called me and said, ‘We want to give you this large gift.’”
Scott’s team of advisors had specifically sought out relief groups like the NHFCRF with “strong leadership teams and results” serving in communities facing high levels of food insecurity, racial inequity, and low access to philanthropic capital.
The $10 million infusion from Scott came at a moment when the NHFCRF was facing an imminent funding shortfall and allowed the group to sustain services through the devastating winter COVID-19 surge.
“We were so worried about how we were going to continue to provide protection to our community members at that time,” said NHFCRF Deputy Director Cassandra Begay.
Begay believes the timing and magnitude of Scott’s generosity spoke to divine intervention and the power of women supporting women in doing impactful work.
“What’s really important to know about the MacKenzie Scott gift is they found us and they sought us out,” said Begay. “They vetted us through their very strict process.
“Oftentimes we’re invisible, so to be on the radar of this multi-billionaire recognizing our work, that doesn’t really happen,” she said. “In many ways her heart and her spirit aligned with ours.”
Branch said all of the support from Scott and all of the other donors brought a huge feeling of relief and gratitude.
“It’s been so heartwarming,” said Branch. “To see so many people care and step forward and want to help protect our people and preserve our language and culture has been amazing.”
Now, with over 300 volunteers, 32 staffers, 30 distribution teams and a fleet of transport vehicles, the NHFCRF has served over 367,000 Navajo and Hopi with humanitarian aid.
The relief group distributes between 10,000 to 20,000 care packages (valued at $100 each) at 10 to 20 locations weekly plus about five distributions of 6,000 PPE kits every week (valued at $18 each).
The NHFCRF also launched a culturally relevant public health education campaign designed to equip Navajo and Hopi community members with the knowledge they need to protect their families from the spread of COVID-19.
“We’ve done our best to create a protective shield for the Navajo and Hopi communities to help close the gap of social inequality and perpetual genocide evident in our poor economy, the health crisis, and the lack of basic humane infrastructure,” said Begay.
Branch said despite the recent reduction in COVID-19 cases, there is still a high demand and a strong need for services in the communities they serve.
“We just don’t know what’s going to happen with the virus,” said Begay. “As matriarchs, our hope is to continue providing protection and to keep moving forward to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Branch, a Harvard Law School graduate and former Navajo Nation attorney general, credits her own mother, Ellen Billie Branch, for her work ethic and tenacity.
“My mom is so inspiring and hard-working and really captures that essence of what it means to be a Navajo woman and setting your mind to something and making it happen,” said Branch.
Ellen Billie Branch was also the inspiration for Branch to start the GoFundMe last March to protect elders and immuno-compromised individuals from COVID-19 by helping them with supplies that allowed them to stay home and stay safe.
Looking back, Branch said the mobilization of the now multi-million dollar NHFCRF effort has been an incredible team effort that has demonstrated that volunteers, local governments, foundations and other relief and aid groups can unify to take care of communities.
“On Navajo you’re faced with so much red tape and so many reasons not to do something, and we just knew with lives on the line, this has to happen, we have to make this happen,” said Branch.
T’áá hwó’ ají t’éego, or empowering self-determination and self-reliance, has been the driving force behind the NHFCRF effort, she said.
“It’s one of our founding principles,” said Branch. “We’ve been very adaptive, really focused on the goal of getting as many resources to our community as possible. It’s been really great to fulfill those principles of t’áá hwó’ ají t’éego and remind our people it’s possible – we can make a difference.”
As they look to the future, Branch said she wants to make sure Navajo and Hopi communities are “pandemic proof.”
“Our next phase of operations will focus on strengthening the resiliency of our communities so we are never caught off guard like this again,” said Branch.
“We really want to go after those underlying issues like the lack of running water, electricity, overcrowded housing and overall poverty in our community,” she said.
Especially with the slowdown in the economy due to COVID-19, Branch believes there needs to be a focus on economic development and innovation, which has remained stagnant on the Nation for decades, largely due to lack of resources and infrastructure.
“There’s really no reason why we have to be in this state of economic paralysis that we’ve had for so long,” she said. “You can empower local governance all you want but if you don’t provide the tools, economic development is not going to come to that community.”
Branch is optimistic that the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration will make strides in helping Indian Country work toward parity with off-reservation communities.
“I’m really hopeful with this administration and Deb Haaland being so knowledgeable about infrastructure that there will be some attention paid to that,” she said.
Haaland’s appointment to secretary of the Department of the Interior was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday. She is the first Native American to hold the position, which is being celebrated across Indian Country.
Branch said the NHFCRF will also be working toward ensuring long-term food security for Navajo and Hopi, including revitalizing farming at the local level with community gardens and focusing on healthy eating.
The two nations are often referred to as food deserts with only 13 full-scale grocery stores on their combined 29,945-square-mile territory.
“Local sustainability at the household level will be very important,” said Branch. “We have so many heirloom fruits and vegetables that are designed to grow in this climate and we have a long legacy of farming and providing for our own families.”
Ongoing public health education and language and cultural preservation are also a big part of the organization’s mission as they pursue their long-term goals.
Begay believes the COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for the world, which has inspired her to make choices not just for today, but for seven generations from now.
“It feels like we are coming from a place of strength and power through an alignment that is much greater than ourselves,” said Begay.
“I would say it was predestined for our group to come together,” she said. “I would say it was predestined by the Holy People to form a shield to help protect our people.”