What started out as an inspiration from the award-winning documentary Broken Rainbow has now turned into a bridge of hope between the Navajo people and other cultures around the world. The documentary examines many injustices that the government was forcing upon the Navajo nation during the 1980s, and Linda Myers just couldn’t stand idly by and do nothing about it. Myers decided to create an art piece to sell during the Park City Arts Festival, and the money from the piece went toward sending food to native elders living on the Navajo reservation.
Lessons in Giving
After selling the piece, she contacted a Navajo woman and asked if she could take her to the grocery store personally and load her car with food to take to the reservation. “So, I picked her up and we went, and at the end she said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I just couldn’t let it go,” Myers recalls.
Three weeks later, the woman called Myers on the phone and asked if she could meet with her. Myers was at first confused because the woman was very standoffish and didn’t seem like she would ever hear from her again.
When they met up, she put a turquoise ring on a table and said, “I went to this house, and it was dark. I was lost on the dirt roads. When I got there, the grandma at the house said it was a miracle. She housed three really old elders, and their car had broken down. They were unable to get water or go cook food. I gave them some of the food that you bought, and the grandma gave me this turquoise ring. I’ve looked at the ring for a couple of weeks, and I just don’t feel good about keeping it. It really belongs to you because I wouldn’t have gone to the reservation if it hadn’t been for your donation of food.”
After that, Myers put up a sign about donating food for the native elders at her store on Main Street in Park City. People started giving her money just for a few pictures that she had taken. However, she decided that if she was going to take money that she better go down to the reservation and see the impact of what her donations would be. She went and visited the homes of the Navajo people, who live very remotely to this day. Unfortunately, what she saw was broken windows, walls, fences, and more. “I was going to make sure they had their basic needs,” Myers recalls.
Through her store donations, she started taking care of 15 native elders. Many of these elders were very traditional and had never traveled more than 30 miles away from their homes. “They know it’s your white people who are removing them from their land,” she says.
When she first took a truckload of food down to the reservation, one of the ladies asked Myers to step outside while she went inside a large hogan to talk with the elders. She stood outside for a while until the woman came back out and said that it was okay for her to give them food. “That had never crossed my mind that it wouldn’t be okay. I mean, it was the first lesson of thinking you’re doing a good thing. In reality, who said it was good? You did. They had the right to accept it or not,” she says. “With me being a white person and with their relationship with the government, they had to think about it. What would it mean if I gave them food? What would it be all about?”
Seven or eight elders came out of the hogan, and the woman told Myers to put the food by their feet. Being very nervous, Myers gingerly put the food by their feet, hardly looking at them. “For the first time in my life, I realized that these people had no reason in the world to appreciate it from me. It wasn’t necessarily rewarding, but the next lesson about giving is that it doesn’t have to be rewarding. It just has to be needed,” she says.
After that, Myers mailed a sheet to the elders to mark what their different needs were and what foods they would like. At first, she didn’t get any answers. Many of the native elders didn’t speak English. However, when she got her first letter back, she was thrilled. So, she based her next trip just on what the one elder marked as needed. The next time she went down, instead of 15 elders, there were a few more.
Myers started setting up booths at parks with a lady she met at a weaving class. They put together a book to explain what could be done to help the native elders. During the process of making the book, one of the elders she was working with came to her and said, “Find somebody to adopt me.” So, the book ended up having pictures of each elder and their needs so that people could “adopt” them and provide money and supplies.
Adopt-a-Native-Elder’s logo was created by the husband of the first woman who Myers had help to load her car with groceries. It has two hands that look like two people sitting together with a feather above them to represent the prayers about bringing the two cultures together. All of this is below a rainbow, which represents the hogans that the elders live in.
The next time Myers went down to the reservation, one of the ladies took her to a medicine man. He performed a ceremony with the book she had created. He rubbed his hand over each page and said that it would help many people, and it would bring them together. “Well, 37 years later with 850 elders in the program and people supporting it all over the world, he had a bigger vision than I did,” she chuckles.
The Program Today
Adopt-a-Native-Elder now visits 13 different areas on the reservation. On a daily basis, volunteers get things ready for their giveaways. They come in and get different boxes together and put them on shelves that are designated by locations. Not only do they put together boxes of food, but they also put together boxes with medical supplies, a “grandma” and “grandpa” box, household boxes, and more. Jeff Dillon, the warehouse manager explains, “Out there, it’s a different way of life. A lot of these folks literally have to plan a day around going to the nearest place to get a toothbrush.”
Sponsors who have adopted native elders provide for them through ordering the different types of boxes. Dillon further explains, “A medicine box has stuff in it that you would usually find in your bathroom mirror. A grandma box has sewing stuff and cloth for them to make clothes. A grandpa box has a couple flannel shirts, a hat, beef jerky—stuff that grandpa needs.” Right now, one of the greatest things that people can do is donate money for firewood vouchers. It takes about 10 loads of wood to get an elder through the winter since they can only heat their homes with fireplaces or fire pits. New blankets are also in high demand because most of the blankets the elders use get worn and tattered in a year’s time.
The program is 100 percent volunteer based, with all donations and grants going only toward providing the food and supplies for the native elders. “There’s a lot you can get from volunteering at the warehouse, but there’s nothing like being out there on the reservation,” Dillon says. “Being able to interact with these people and see the actual difference that you make in these people’s lives is a really special thing.”
More Than Volunteering
Sometimes, volunteer work can seem just like that: work. However, Dillon knows that with Adopt-a-Native-Elder, it’s different. “I’ve been with the program for just over two years now. Even on my worst days when I’m tired or I’m not feeling good, I’ve never had that feeling of not wanting to be here. I’ve never had that ‘go to work’ feeling,” he says. “It’s because no matter what we’re doing in here on a day-to-day basis, you are literally making a difference in thousands of people’s lives.”
Ed Keane has been with the program since 1998. He first got into the program from being an anthropology student and having an interest in Native Americans. “I enjoy interacting with the elders, and there’s some great people that come down and volunteer their time. They are fun, enthusiastic people to be around. You’re not trying to save the world. You’re trying to save around 500 elders you’re working with,” he says. “I think one of the things that’s important to me is that you can actually interact with the elders on their homeland. It’s kind of fun when you go out to someone’s house, and they are peeking out through their windows when you come up to the door.”
Keane is 89 years old and still makes an effort to volunteer his time and resources to the program. In fact, he met his wife, Gene, while volunteering. “You’re just interacting with people and then you begin to realize they’re kind of nice people, and it went from there with her,” he recalls.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program is not currently assigning new adoptions. However, there are many more ways to help. Visit anelder.org to donate directly or to shop handmade rugs, jewelry, contemporary art, and other crafts. You can also volunteer your time by visiting their warehouse at 328 W. Gregson Ave, Salt Lake City, UT.
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