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Red Feather teaches Navajo Nation communities to build hand-washing stations

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

UPPER FRUITLAND — The act of washing your hands has become vital in combating the new coronavirus, but it can be difficult for some to maintain hand hygiene when up to 30% of homes on the Navajo Nation are without running water.

Red Feather Development Group is one of the community nonprofits offering a solution by teaching community members how to build hand-washing stations in workshops on the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

"We were trying to figure out how we can make an impact during this time of COVID and we were wondering about hand washing because we know it's super important to staying healthy," Joe Seidenberg, executive director of Red Feather, said in a telephone interview.

What Red Feather did was adopt the do-it-yourself design by nonprofit LavaMaex for hand-washing stations – its main components consist of two 32-gallon trash bins, PVC piping and a foot pump.

LavaMaex's website states that each station can hold enough water for up to 500 hand washes at a time and it can be built, deployed and maintained by communities anywhere there is access to fresh water and grey water disposal.

Roy Lee Hosteen, Four Corners Program Coordinator with Red Feather Development Group, cuts a trash bin lid as part of the work to alter the item into a hand-washing station on Aug. 14 in Upper Fruitland.

While Red Feather, which is based in Flagstaff, Arizona, has delivered 184 units so far to households on Navajo and Hopi lands, they have added training sessions to teach community members how to construct the devices.

"We have the vision that if we can provide hands-up to communities, instead of handouts, and build local resilience, it's a stronger way to develop programs versus doing the work ourselves," Seidenberg said.

The training is the latest in a 25-year partnership the group has had with tribal nations, which spans from its start in building conventional housing on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to conducting hands-on training in home repair on Navajo and Hopi.

Water pours from a hand-washing station that was assembled during a workshop on Aug. 14 in Upper Fruitland.

In Upper Fruitland, Roy Lee Hosteen cut a hole in the lid of a trash bin during a workshop on Aug. 14.

The cut was large enough to fit a 12-quart dishpan, which serves as a sink after a drain is attached.

Hosteen, Red Feather's Four Corners Program Coordinator, received training for building the stations and is now conducting workshops in communities on the New Mexico portion of the reservation.

"We try to make it aesthetically pleasing as well as functional," he said.

Seidenberg and Hosteen know the systems are not the permanent answer to the lack of an indoor water supply, but it provides an immediate solution to the crisis the pandemic has spotlighted.

"It's a Band-Aid, but Band-Aids help," Hosteen said.

Upper Fruitland Chapter Manager Alvis Kee said majority of households in the community have running water, served by the Farmington municipal system, but they have identified 40 homes that do not have water, or electricity, or both.

Amelinette McGilbert, an employee with Northern Navajo Medical Center, connects a foot pump to the hand-washing station she assembled on Aug. 14 in Upper Fruitland.

Some of these homes do not have these services because of the costs associated with installing them, he explained.

Navajo leaders recently authorized using $130 million from the amount the tribe received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to fund water projects on the reservation.

The tribe has collaborated with the Indian Health Service to install 54 transitional water points for public use in chapters, including Upper Fruitland.

"What do you think, boss?" Amelinette McGilbert said to Hosteen after completing her first hand-washing station.

McGilbert works in the Public Health Nursing Department at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock and attended the session with co-workers from that department and from the Health Promotion Disease Prevention program. 

Participants work with materials like PVC pipe and cutters to assemble hand-washing stations on Aug. 14 in Upper Fruitland.

Navajo Area IHS spokeswoman Jenny Notah said the training was part of the task to use resources in the community to help families in need of assistance and to help patients become self-sufficient.

She added that staff were aware of Red Feather and its work in communities before attending the session and coordinated the delivery of a station to a COVID-19 patient for use.

"As a result of attending the workshop, Northern Navajo Medical Center staff now have hands-on knowledge of the tools and steps necessary to build hand-washing stations and will be able to share information on the available resources with patients and community members," Notah said.

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

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