Supporting the Navajo Nation During COVID-19

Sometimes a seemingly simple question can have a big impact. Michelle Birtcher was on a Friday call with her team, a time they use to catch up on life and stay connected during COVID-19, when her boss asked her, “What are you up to this weekend?”

Michelle, a strategic client executive for UnitedHealthcare, shared how the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, NM has been hit hard by the pandemic, with thousands of cases and few resources. As a member of the Navajo Nation, seeing the effects COVID-19 has had on the reservation has been difficult. 

Michelle as a child on the Fort Defiance Navajo Reservation in Arizona

“There are several reasons – poverty, pre-existing conditions, multigenerational households and an estimated 30-40% that lack running water and electricity,” Michelle said. “Many people don’t live near grocery stores and often travel hours one way to shop for groceries and other essentials.” 

Michelle said she was planning to buy supplies and do whatever she could to help the Navajo Nation. She explained how her sister, Kendra who works as a physician assistant in the emergency room, has been working on the front lines on the reservation in Shiprock, and how her mother, Esther, was sewing masks for the hospital, as they have a limited supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Michelle’s teammates immediately offered to donate money and suggested she cast a wider net and send an email to others who may want to help. All told, Michelle raised $1,770 from colleagues, friends and family to purchase supplies. Michelle also received donations, including pet food, fabric for masks, cases of bottled water, plus boxes and buckets to transport the supplies. 

Delivering supplies — and more
Michelle spent 11 hours, covering an estimated 300 miles and spanning three states to deliver all of the goods.

Esther, Michelle and Kendra on the reservation in Arizona

Her sister Kendra joined Michelle on the trip and was able to do verbal wellness checks and ensure people knew they needed to stay home to stay healthy. They even drove 20 miles on a dirt road to check on someone who had been left behind when their family members were transported to hospitals after contracting the virus. 

“It was humbling, and I wish I could do more,” Michelle said. “But they were so happy and curious about why we wanted to help them. Many only speak Navajo. Our guide, a leader in the community, emphasized that what mattered the most is that they felt like someone cared; it wasn’t just about the goods.” 

In one day, Michelle helped 23 families and more than 75 people – ranging in age from infants to 94 years old.  They gave away 40 cases of water, 40 boxes filled with food and supplies, plus 30 buckets filled with dog food, cat food, fresh fruit, vegetables and face masks. 

Michelle has always found joy in serving others but having this opportunity to help her people at such a challenging time has fulfilled a deeper need. 

“Where I’m from, if you leave, you’re expected to come back and help your people,” she said. “I didn’t come back, so this is how I can help my people, especially during these hard times. I’m very proud of my culture; I am proud to represent the Navajo people and be a voice for them when so many are voiceless.”