Lucas Garcia is carrying on a legacy of helping others. “It’s passed down through the generations. I watched my elders give to the community, fight for our community, make sure that people had their simple necessities met,” he says. “My mom, Lorraine LeRoux, my dad, Alfred Garcia: They instilled in me that our elders laid the foundation for us to be successful.”
So when the pandemic threatened the elders in his north Denver community, Garcia knew it was time to give back. What started as a simple act of grocery shopping soon grew into Compassionate Colorado, a grassroots organization dedicated to providing essential items for those in need. But the reach of the mission has grown: Along with helping people all over Denver, Compassionate Colorado is taking supplies to Navajo (Dine’) families living in the Navajo Nation.
When stay-at-home measures were first introduced in March, Garcia realized that he could help his elderly neighbors by buying and delivering their groceries. He talked with seniors he saw at his neighborhood Safeway, and then put out a message on Facebook asking who could use assistance. Many answered, and some of the messages were from people who wanted to volunteer.
“A lot of people want to help, but they don’t know where,” says Garcia. "We don’t need huge government. We don’t need huge entities. It’s about having the idea and having the heart to help these communities.”
By April, his volunteer network was providing boxes of food for about ninety families and individuals, including the elderly, those with disabilities and Denver’s homeless population. “The houseless situation is very critical and controversial, but they are human beings, and we are just providing everyday needs to human beings so they know that they are not forgotten,” Garcia explains.
Then Garcia's crew heard about the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation. An elder there had posted a video on Facebook describing the struggles that his community was facing, and it was like “they put out their battle cry," Garcia remembers. "A lot of people in our community have Native blood in them, and they said, ‘Hey, I want to help our people.’"
During the first five months of the pandemic, the coronavirus positivity rate was nearly 20 percent for Indian Health Service patients on the Navajo Nation and in the Phoenix area, the New York Times reported recently. During the same time span, the national positivity rate was 7 percent.
As Garcia and other volunteers started organizing supplies for the Navajo Nation, he connected with Ashlee Lewis, executive director of The Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities who have experienced abuse. Together they founded Compassionate Colorado, in order to strengthen the systems and processes for collecting and distributing supplies.
By April 29, Compassionate Colorado had gathered enough supplies to fill two 26-foot-long trucks with supplies: food, water, medicine and blankets. “After our first trip down there, [Lewis] and I were in tears about what’s been happening to our community down there, even before the virus,” Garcia says.
The Navajo Nation had already been suffering from a lack of adequate health services and water infrastructure, but those conditions were aggravated by the pandemic. Garcia points out that grocery stores and health-care facilities can often be hours away from homes on the reservation. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, at least 15 percent of the population doesn't receive piped water — and much of the water is contaminated from uranium mining, which is why water is an important part of a Compassionate Colorado delivery.
“A lot of Native Americans don’t trust outsiders because of the trauma that’s happened throughout the generations,” Garcia says. “We’re putting this on ourselves to do this long term, for the rest of our lives. … Our goal is to help as many people as possible.”
And the people need help: The virus is still spreading rapidly through the Navajo Nation. As of December 16, the tribe had reported 19,929 total COVID-19 cases and 727 known deaths since the pandemic began, and tribal officials warned that almost all of the intensive-care beds on the reservation were filled, according to the Associated Press.
Compassionate Colorado now has around sixty volunteers regularly helping out, whether by storing food in their front rooms or garages, packing bags and boxes, or assisting with deliveries in Denver or to the reservation. In addition, there are plenty of people — Garcia calls them “his little angels” — who just leave supplies on his front porch. “They help us, and then they’re gone,” he explains.
Garcia, a former special-ed instructor, is now working full-time with Compassionate Colorado; the organization is filing to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that will continue to provide aid beyond the pandemic. “We don’t just want to put a Band-Aid,” Garcia says. Instead, the group's members plan to continue their deliveries not just in Denver, but to the Navajo Nation, providing a show of solidarity and support as well as material goods.
So far, Compassionate Colorado has made sixteen trips to the reservation, delivering two truckloads' worth each time to different areas of the Navajo Nation. At the same time they're helping residents there, volunteers are gaining a greater appreciation of what they have to share with other communities. “It’s just beautiful, [how they] are not just worried about themselves,” Garcia says. “It’s a way to deal with the trauma of what’s happening.”