Parked behind a sprawling hall on tribal fairgrounds in Window Rock, Ariz., the supermarket semi-truck looked like any other on the outside.
But the bounty inside was something special: donated food and water for hundreds of families in the impoverished Navajo Nation, where the country’s worst per-capita outbreak of COVID-19 had made everyday life even harder.
What turned into a festive delivery day in late July was the pinnacle of two months of planning, fueled by the generosity of Arizona locals that contributed $10,500 to help their Navajo neighbors.
The grocery chain Safeway matched half of that, providing more than $5,000 of bottled water. The AFL-CIO and UFCW also participated, donating face masks and other goods.
The haul, in dollars and the eye-popping truckload of groceries they bought, was beyond Fred Cooke’s dreams when he approached IBEW leaders in May about the crisis in his homeland, 27,000 square miles bordering Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
|Benson Bitsui, left, of Albuquerque Local 611, and Phil Aguayo of Phoenix Local 640, pack food boxes for Navajo Nation families.
Phoenix Local 640 member Frederick Cooke, right, who helped launch the donation project, is pictured with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, middle, and Albuquerque Local 611 member Leland Leonard.
“I had no idea how big it was going to get,” said Cooke, a 20-year Phoenix Local 640 journeyman wireman who grew up in the Navajo Nation. Many of his relatives and friends still live there, including Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.
As union and Navajo volunteers packed pallets of groceries into family food boxes, the president paid a surprise visit.
“We were set up with long tables, like an assembly line,” Cooke said. “Everyone was pitching in and someone said, ‘Nez is here, Nez is here!’ and everyone kind of dropped what they were doing.”
Gathering the group around him, the president called the IBEW members and others extending a hand, “true friends of the Navajo Nation.”
“He was very thankful for the IBEW putting it together, making it all happen,” Cooke said.
Getting to that point took the kind of strategic thinking and attention to detail that are a way of life for IBEW organizers like Robert Sample, whom Cooke knew through his role as chairman of the Local 640 examining board.
Sample, the Seventh District organizing coordinator for Arizona, was paying close attention to regional news as the pandemic swept across the Navajo Nation in May.
The per capita infection and death rates soared beyond even New York City's, magnifying crisis levels of poverty and unemployment for the Navajo people.
It weighed heavily on Cooke, who lost count of how many friends and relatives were falling ill. Some, he said, "moved back to the spirit world."
Turning to Sample, Cooke asked if the IBEW could help.
Sample had been thinking the same thing. Right away, he recruited Globe, Ariz., Local 518 Business Manager Domenic Marcanti to write a letter to his counterparts at the state's six other locals —Phoenix Locals 266, 387, 640 and 769, and Tucson Locals 570 and 1116.
Once Marcanti and his fellow business managers met with their executive boards, “everyone threw the money in with no hesitation,” Sample said.
“All of our locals have Navajo members,” said Local 640 Business Manager Dean Wine, who represents the Sixth District on the International Executive Council. “It hit really close to home for us.”
Writing a check is often the end of a donor's role, as charities commonly prefer cash over goods to maximize their purchasing power. But Navajo officials told Sample that delivery of non-perishable food was the most urgent need.
“With financial donations, there’s a lot of red tape we have to go through with the Nation. The money sits until we can create internal policies," said Harland Cleveland, the Nation's emergency management director and relief coordinator.
Starting with a whirlwind of phone calls, Sample built a team that saw the project through start to finish.
"It helped tremendously," Cleveland said. "With the IBEW donations, we were able to make more than 600 food boxes."
IBEW locals partnered with a Safeway store in Farmington, N.M., leading to a huge logistical gift from the chain's regional office in Denver — the semi-truck.
"We weren't sure how we were going to get the food there," Sample said. "We thought maybe we could arrange some U-Hauls; we even had some brothers out of Local 1116 who had a truck. But can you imagine how many trucks it would take? Thank God we didn't have to end up going that way."
Even in normal times, it takes effort for Navajo families to keep their cupboards stocked. Money is a factor, but so is distance. A trip to the store can take a half day or more, with only about a dozen markets dotted across territory the size of West Virginia.
"The nearest grocery store might be 40 or 50 miles away and surrounding that one store you might have 10,000, 15,000, people," said Albuquerque Local 611 organizer Benson Bitsui, a member of the Navajo Nation who helped with the project. "And if you go to a border town, that can be 100 to 150 miles to travel."
Like Americans coast to coast, the Navajo people began panic-buying in the early days of the COVID-19 threat. Shelves were depleted for weeks. Stock returned, but fear kept many customers home.
The daily numbers of infections and deaths dropped significantly over the summer, due to closures, curfews, masks and other precautions. But the crisis isn't over.
A steady food supply is still a challenge for Navajo families, especially with fewer visits from border-state relatives who customarily arrive in pickups loaded with groceries and supplies.
“Every chance we get, my brothers and I try to make a trip up there,” Cooke said, describing what had been more frequent five-hour journeys from the Phoenix area. “Now we’ve cut back. We go only when our presence is needed, about once a month."
For both Cooke and Bitsui, a journeyman wireman who marks 40 years with the IBEW next spring, the embrace of their union and Navajo families on delivery day was a source of joy and pride.
"It's one thing I will always remember," Bitsui said. "President Nez, he was happy and he was humbled. He was humbled for his people that the union came forward to help."
For information about helping the people of the Navajo Nation go to at www.nndoh.org/donate.html