Partial government shutdown does not stop senior centers from delivering meals

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

NEWCOMB — Daniel Lewis grabbed fresh fruit cups and containers that held lentil soup from the delivery truck he drives for the Newcomb Senior Center.

After situating the items on a blue tray, he knocked on the door to the house belonging to Judith Harris in Burnham on March 24.

The meals are for Harris and her daughter, Ruth Pablo, and come at a time when the Navajo Nation government is in a partial shutdown and residents are told to stay at home.

Both actions are part of precautionary measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

"My mom looks forward to his visit," Pablo said while Lewis and Harris talked in the Navajo language before he resumed his deliveries.

More:Here are the latest coronavirus updates from San Juan County, Four Corners region

Since the number of cases for the COVID-19 virus continue to rise in communities near and on the Navajo Nation, the tribal government has responded by closing non-essential departments and programs to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The senior centers have been closed to the public since March 13, but staff members continue to work because they provide essential direct services through meal programs to eligible older Navajos – many who live in remote areas.

There are 93 centers on the reservation and are under the Division of Aging and Long Term Care Support, a unit of the Navajo Department of Health.

More:San Juan County manager urges people to do their part in preventing spread of coronavirus

Jill Jim, the health department director, did not respond to a request for comment about current operations of the centers. The agency office in Shiprock referred questions to Jim's office.

The supervisors for three centers in the Northern Agency told The Daily Times that they are working alongside the cooks and the drivers to provide meals, but the distribution varies.

Daniel Lewis, driver for the Newcomb Senior Center, grabs a carton of milk to add to a lunch on March 24 in Newcomb.

David Randolph Sr., the supervisor for the center in Newcomb, said they continue to prepare lunches for those in the congregate meal program and for members enrolled in the home delivery program.

He added the center is operating a pick-up lunch service for its membership.

Arlene Bia manages the center in Naschitti and the one in Sheep Springs.

Bia said employees at both centers are delivering meals because of the stay-at-home order for the entire reservation by the health department.

She explained that there have been conflicting directions to supervisors on how to provide meal services at the centers. She said she finally told her boss that Naschitti and Sheep Springs will only deliver meals.

Newcomb Senior Center Driver Daniel Lewis stops to visit with Burnham resident Judith Harris, 88, before continuing to deliver meals on March 24.

"They don't have a guide – specifically, anything in writing. There's nothing," Bia said about the department leadership.

"I try the best I can to function with whatever things that I can function with. Also, to translate and communicate what's going on here to the staff then from the staff to the seniors," she said.

At Newcomb, Lewis has worked for 15 years at the senior center. In that time, he has never experienced such a reduction in services due to a pandemic.

He received instructions from Randolph to minimize contact with the elderly, to frequently use hand sanitizer and to practice social distancing when talking to community members.

"I'm not scared, I just have faith. Faith in the Lord," Lewis said.

The extra precautions did not bother the older community members on March 24. They were happy to see Lewis and to receive the food.

Tommy Garfield, left, and Daniel Lewis, driver for the Newcomb Senior Center, visit on March 24 in Newcomb.

When Tommy Garfield saw the delivery truck approaching his residence in Newcomb, he walked to the edge of the yard then greeted Lewis with a smile.

The two men talked about current events before Lewis returned to the truck.

"I'm going to have my lunch, even if its late," Garfield said teasingly.

When Lewis arrived at Daisy Howe's home in Newcomb, she was watching television.

Howe and Lewis chatted in the Navajo language, then Howe responded to a question by The Daily Times about her thoughts on the center carrying on with home delivered meals despite concerns about COVID-19.

"She's glad that she still gets her lunch," said Irene Werito, who translated her mother's response.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at

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Newcomb resident Daisy Howe, 87, was among 26 senior citizens who received lunch from the Newcomb Senior Center on March 24.