by Daniela Mussolino
(Note: ANE has been blessed to have two wonderful volunteers come from Australia in the past several years. Daniela arrived this summer and spent several weeks helping in the warehouse and learning about the Program before attending the food run to Oljato and Navajo Mountain in late August.)
I found my purpose about two years ago when a friend sent me the website of the Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program. I was immediately taken by the purpose and intention they promoted and immediately something clicked into place, but I couldn’t understand entirely what it was. It was probably a combination of the whole of the program: the goal to help while respecting the traditions and culture of the Navajo people and the willingness to learn about their way of life; the love and enthusiasm shared in many touching stories from other volunteers; and the amazing opportunity that is given to anyone to be part of this program, not only by supporting with money and donations but more importantly with time, physical work, and experiencing the personal interaction with the Elders. This is what makes them different.
But what really moved something inside me were the photos of the elders. It’s not only the fragility of their bodies and the thousands of lines that cross and mark their faces, telling a story of endurance and sacrifice, but it is the humbleness and the kindness in their eyes that affected me deeply. I knew from that moment that I had finally found the purpose in life that I’d been looking for so long. It was something that not only would make me feel useful, but also something from which there would be spiritual growth and important lessons to learn and to share with others, but also something that touched my heart like nothing else before. It was a call of the heart.
I started out like most new volunteers by requesting an Elder to support. My new Elder was an 86 year old grandma who had spent her life on her land with her husband taking care of their livestock and weaving rugs to support her family.
The second step I took was to gather information needed to participate in one of the twice-yearly food runs. Joyce Trapman, despite her busy life running the main office at the ANE warehouse, has always being so gracious and ready to help providing all the information I was looking for and more. It’s only after I met her that I understood that that’s her nature, a wonderful, cheerful and gentle spirit, always ready to give.
The third step was to book my flight and hotel accommodations and then wait impatiently for the day of my departure.
And finally it came!
As soon as I saw the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City, I had the feeling of being at home, a kind of strange feeling when I think it was the first time that I had been there. Joyce picked me up at the airport, and I realized instantly she is the most beautiful and funny lady I've ever met. She gave me a quick tour, and we ended the evening, with me yawning after the long trip, in front of a large dish with different varieties of fish. My first impression of this continent was that everything is huge! Even the portions of food served in the restaurants! I went to bed early as I was tired from the long journey, but I never stopped smiling for a moment!
On my first day of volunteering at the warehouse, I quickly learned a memorable lesson! I went to give, but I was the one who received more! The generosity and all the offers of help and invitations from all the other volunteers overwhelmed me, and I had a hard time understanding that if we give without allowing others to give us back something in return, even if it's something small and something they need more than us, we break the sacred balance of life, the continuous natural cycle that governs the universe.... the breath of life....breathe in, breathe out.. I’ve learned that we must allow others to feel the same blessings and happiness that we feel when we give!
On my second day I felt like I'd found the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! All the people at ANE were awesome, with the biggest hearts I have ever encountered! But what really amazed me was to see how many young people and kids were volunteering and having fun while working hard! Every Tuesday and Friday there was work to do in the warehouse, so I went along with other people who came to help and we started packing backpacks with school items for the kids on the reservation....it felt like Christmas, when we wrap presents for our loved ones. It was a special and joyful moment!
My third day was a day of office work, helping with the tasks that take place behind the scenes and are so often unrecognized and unappreciated. These are the jobs done by people who spend days and sometimes even nights tending to the little details, so, when the day of the food run arrives, when they take the boxes to the Elders, no one will be without food. This is what I think of as the Journey of a Rainbow, when one end meets the other end in the middle, and together they mend the broken circle.
After many days of work in the office and a few more in the warehouse, I finally started the long drive with Fientje. I nicknamed her the “animal whisperer” for the special gift she has of talking to wild animals and getting them to come close. We would meet with the other 33 volunteers in Mexican Hat at the border of the Navajo Reservation, where Linda would hold the opening ceremony with blessings and a welcome to all the volunteers.
Many volunteers knew each other because they had participated in previous food runs. For me, they were all new faces, but the welcoming kindness that everyone showed to me and the other new volunteers touched me and drew me into the spirit of the occasion. It’s not an everyday thing to experience this kind of closeness between souls, but when it happens we realize we are not alone and our spirit is one with everything around us. It is an important moment in life that makes us understand the meaning in being in the right place, where we were meant to be!
The next day we were in Oljato for the first food run where we met the Elders. They came with their families from the surrounding area. When we drove through Monument Valley, I felt once more blessed and infinitely grateful for being able to see all that beauty of our Mother Earth. I remember breathing in every single atom of air, like wanting to keep within me the energy emanating from this spiritual place.
My first meeting with the Elders was another precious moment. I saw loneliness, frailty, and pain, but I also saw strength, peacefulness, humor, and determination. I saw bonds between families and witnessed the existence of love. Above all, I saw that the ones who have less are the ones who have more in spirit.
The following day our second food run was at Navajo Mountain which is in a very remote area of the reservation. It rained throughout the entire journey to the senior center where the Elders were waiting for us. A few trailers and little wooden houses hidden in the clouds were all I could see during the drive, but I felt a warm energy before we got there, and I knew there was something special in that place. I understood what it was once the Elders were all seated and began to follow our presentations with interest and amusement. Even our “Ya’at’eeh” greetings made them burst out laughing. I can imagine how funny our attempts at speaking Navajo must have sounded.
The Elders were so appreciative that it made me feel warm about what we were doing. And I’d never felt such warm, heartfelt thanks for having traveled so far to add my little part. Looking at them enjoying themselves and laughing at all the jokes Linda and Wendy were making, it was touching enough to make me grateful for being there with them.
I was totally unprepared when the first Elder approached me, took my hand in hers, and while thanking me for being there, she presented me with a beautiful necklace she had made. I burst out in tears when two more Elders came with more presents and warm thanks. I had never before been shown so much appreciation for what I was doing. It touched my heart and changed it forever!
Another precious moment of this incredible journey was when I met my elder in private. She lives alone in a small apartment in one of the many little communities of the reservation where her relatives moved her after her husband passed away. There wasn’t much in her apartment, no television, no radio, no books (not that she can read without great difficulty anyway)! She was too busy helping the family to attend school regularly. I cannot even imagine how empty are her evenings, staring out of the window and listening only to the sounds coming from the streets and from her neighbors. A small electrical heater is all she has for warmth in the winter, and when I inquired if it was enough to keep her warm, which I doubted, she said no, but that she could not afford to pay a higher electrical bill. I never felt so helpless in my entire life. The blanket I brought her as a present was just a palliative for a heater, but at least she had something soft to wrap herself during the coldest months of the year.
The loneliness and the absence of human contact is what hit me the most. When she was a child, the Elders played an important role in the family - interacting, helping, passing down their knowledge and their culture, and feeling part of the community. What she has now in her life, now that she is an Elder herself, is an altogether different reality – a reality of abandonment by the remainder of her family who are too busy living their own lives to make the short trip to visit her in her small and empty apartment.
What I saw and felt through my adopted grandmother is the reflection in a mirror of many other Elders that live in the same condition if not even worse. I learned from long-serving volunteers that many Elders live in such remote areas that they don’t even have electricity or running water. Once, they were free to live where they wanted to, but not anymore. Life is hard and yet they have lived and have grown in humility and with beauty in their hearts. No one can take that away from them.
This was the most amazing journey of my life, and it has changed me forever. For this remarkable gift I’d like to thank Linda Myers for starting the journey herself many years ago. Without her all this wouldn’t be here today. But I also wish to thank her from the bottom of my heart for the wise advice she offered and for the time she spent with me. Words will never be sufficient to express what in impact she has had on my life, and how much she inspired me with her being. She is a very special human being.
But I also would like to thank all the other people who had shared their time, their homes, and food with me, too many to mention here, but I'd just like to mention a few: Joyce, who taught me with patience and cheerfulness how they operate the entire system, who so generously gave me a ride every day from my hotel to the office and back, and showed me the beauty of the mountains and Salt Lake City; Esther, who showed me another aspect of American life and who spent many hours with me talking and laughing; Masuda, who had me taste the most delicious iced yogurt ever, and took me to some unforgettable places that I hold dear in my heart; John and Virginia, who are such gentle, sweet, intelligent, and inspiring people who opened their home and welcomed me with genuine kindness that surprised me; Cheryl, who took me to the sheep dog trials where ANE had a tent promoting and selling arts and crafts made by the Elders, and allowed me to have closer contact with the Elders weaving their rugs and to learn about the incredible amount of work involved in creating the wonderful rugs they sell. Also, special thanks go to Rodger who shared his Navajo fry bread with me and explained the fascinating process by which it is made. And, last but not least, Fientje, who opened her cabin in the mountains to me and shared her love for all creatures. She opened her heart and told of the incredible magic and immense love there is in the universe if we only look with our hearts and not with our eyes. And her heart is surely immense like the universe!
I found amazing people in this place, like nowhere else in the world. I found a spiritual family that gave me hope for the future of this planet and made me realize that we can change the world and make it a better place if we care and share what we have with others.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Adopt-A-Native-Elder, I can hardly wait to be with you again for another extraordinary life journey!