Valley pilots deliver donations to Navajo Nation in New Mexico

Bob Wirth, left, and Ted Lewis unload donations at Gallup Municipal Airport from the 33rd annual Christmas Airlift. The 4 tons of goods will be given to needy families living on the Navajo Nation reservation. (Cecilia Chan/Independent Newsmedia)

By Cecilia Chan

Independent Newsmedia

Allen Woody recalls growing up in northern Arizona’s Black Mesa on the Navajo Reservation.

His home was a hogan, an octagon structure made out of logs and mud. There was no running water or electricity, so his family made do with kerosene lamps and fetched water from a nearby spring with used lard cans.

Today, Mr. Woody is 63 years old and not much has changed for many Navajos still living without basic utilities on the reservation. The Navajo Nation is the largest tribe in the United States with lands stretching into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

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The Navajo people are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without running water or a toilet, and 40 percent of the 174,000 people living on the reservation are without running water, according to the Navajo Water Project. The project brings clean, hot and cold water to homes on the Navajo reservation, while improving infrastructure that provides clean water to institutions like schools and community centers.

Into these third-world conditions, coupled with an unemployment rate of about 50 percent and a poverty rate of 38 percent — twice that of the state of Arizona — a group of pilots from Arizona made an annual trek to Gallup, New Mexico to drop off tax-deductible donations that included, blankets, gently used clothing, hygiene products, non-perishable food and toys.

Some 38 pilots this past weekend flew out of airports in Deer Valley, Flagstaff, Chandler, Scottsdale, Goodyear, Benson, Sierra Vista and Douglas for the 33rd Annual Christmas Airlift to the Navajo Nation.

“I look forward to this every year,” said Bob Wirth, a Scottsdale resident who has participated in the event since 1993. “I feel good about it and they appreciate what we do.”

Mr. Wirth, who earned his pilot’s license in 1969, has also flown for Civil Air Patrol in search for lost aircraft and Flights for Life, transporting blood and the occasional patient to hospitals.

He used to fly donations collected from co-workers at GTE Corp., but since his retirement as an electrical and computer engineer, he now carries the overflow of donations. This past Saturday he flew out of Phoenix Deer Valley Airport, his Beechcraft loaded with a passenger and a little over 200 pounds of donations.

About 4 tons of donations were collected from schools, churches, businesses and civic groups this year, according to Greg McColley, whose parents, Dick and Betty McColley, initiated the airlifts in 1985.

Mr. McColley said his parents held deep affection for native Americans and used to adopt boys from the now-closed Phoenix Indian School to bring home for the holidays. The Glendale resident took over the stewardship of the airlifts after his parents died.

The 220 families from Primrose School of Fletcher Heights in Peoria and Primrose School at Tatum collected more than 80 bags of clothing, bedding, coats, toiletries, books, toys and infant supplies for the airlift, according to Heather Legeza, who co-owns the two private preschools with her husband. The Peoria resident accompanied Mr. McColley on the airlift.

The pilots used to fly to Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation, to drop off the donations. But the runway of the Navajo-owned airport in northern Arizona was in poor condition, difficult to get fuel and too small as more pilots joined in the endeavor, prompting the group two years ago to switch to Gallup Municipal Airport, according to Mr. McColley.

A little over an hour after he left Phoenix, Mr. Wirth touched down in Gallup. He and other pilots unloaded plastic bags on the tarmac as Thoreau Navajo Outreach members and volunteers gathered them in two horse trailers for the 32-mile trek back to town where the donations will be sorted and taken to families on the reservation.

“We are really grateful this event takes place because the items that come to your program really goes a long way and you can see the blessings they give,” Mr. Woody, director of operations for Thoreau Navajo Outreach, told the pilots. He moved to New Mexico from Arizona more than 30 years ago.

Firewood, blankets, warm clothing and gloves are in desperate need on the reservation, according to the nonprofit organization.

“People wonder why you don’t have electricity and running water,” said Felma Joe, the organization’s outreach coordinator. “But we didn’t have the right to vote until 1948. That is like not too long ago.”

And, she said, native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924, which means they did not have a voice for their community.

Mr. Woody believes the disparity in education, social programs and healthcare are keeping native Americans from doing better. People can’t even get a business loan using land as collateral because Indian lands are owned and managed by the federal government, Mr. Woody said.

Alcoholism also is a problem on the reservation and most live on welfare, according to Clara Toledo, an outreach coordinator and sister to Ms. Joe.

The median household income for the Navajo Nation was $27,389 in 2016, far lower than the state of Arizona at $50,448, according to a report by the Arizona Rural Policy Institute and Northern Arizona University.

Arizona has the largest Navajo population at 101,835 in 2010, followed by New Mexico at 65,766 and Utah with 6,068. The majority of the Navajo Nation is dominated by those under 18 years of age, about one-third of all tribal members, according to the report.

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