Vanessa Fron had never been to Utah before she arrived in Monticello on March 17. She’d been hired through an UServeUtah AmeriCorps program to lead youth conservation crews with the Canyon Country Discovery Center this summer, removing invasive species and performing trail maintenance on public lands.
But just as the leader training program was supposed to kick off, the country was closing down.
“You’re driving west into a more and more rural landscape while you’re learning that cities around the world are shutting their doors,” Fron, 23, recalled of the trip from her hometown of Chicago.
The five leaders in the program were scheduled to spend the spring getting wilderness first aid training, learning team building techniques and preparing to take Canyon Country Youth Corps crews into the backcountry.
Fron, an environmental biology major, signed up for the program because she wanted to do hands-on conservation work in an outdoor setting, a prospect that was seeming unlikely in mid-March.
“By the time we rolled up in Monticello we were wondering, do we have a job anymore?” said Elissa Rothman, another member of the crew leader program.
For other conservation corps across the country that had projects planned for the spring, the answer was no, according to Dave Bastian, partnerships director for the Canyon Country Discovery Center.
Many similar programs were canceled, Bastian said, “mostly because they didn’t have their crews already on board or they sent them home immediately.”
The Canyon Country Youth Corps leaders, however, were presented with an alternative to turning around and going home.
“AmeriCorps has a strong tradition of disaster relief,” Bastian said, “and we were told that if we could keep [program participants] busy doing something meaningful, we could keep them employed.”
Conservation work was off the table as land management agencies were scrambling to come up with their own coronavirus plan. But in the town of Bluff, a group of volunteers had just begun organizing a grassroots relief effort for southeast Utah, and they were looking for assistance.
The Bluff Area Mutual Aid (BAMA) group, which was started by residents in March, was receiving hundreds of calls a week from families and high-risk individuals in need of food and supplies because of the economic downturn and travel restrictions on the Navajo Nation.
With support from the Rural Utah Project, Utah Diné Bikéyah and hundreds of individual donors, volunteer organizers were ordering an average of $10,000 of bulk food and essential supplies per week through a food distributor at the Twin Rocks Cafe in Bluff, which had closed due to the outbreak.
Wearing masks and gloves, small groups of volunteers gathered in the restaurant dining room multiple times each week to pack food into boxes according to need and household size, which were then delivered to families from Blanding to Navajo Mountain to Aneth.
The AmeriCorps members were in need of work, and the aid group was in desperate need of more volunteers to help with the time-consuming deliveries.
“This was just the perfect fit because it was a meaningful project fulfilling a need even though it was kind of outside of anything we'd prepared for,” Bastian said.
“I’ll be honest, when I found out that instead of using power tools and living out in the wild, I’d be packing and delivering supplies, I was a little disheartened,” said Tee Murphy, another crew leader. “But after one day working with those wonderful people, doing the wonderful work, it quickly went away…. At the end of each workday with BAMA, I know my work will directly and greatly help families who have no one else to turn to amid this crisis.”
The crew leaders worked with volunteers from the Navajo & Hopi Families Covid Relief Fund, organized by former Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch, as well as elected officials in the Navajo Nation government and school district employees.
The Utah Navajo Health System organized a similar food delivery effort and partnered with BAMA to bring relief to southeastern Utah residents.
All told, BAMA brought food and supplies to over 2,000 people in less than two months. But during that time, the outbreak has also worsened in San Juan County with recent testing efforts placing it behind only Summit County for per capita confirmed cases in Utah.
“It hasn’t been what we expected,” Rothman said, “but I think that it’s a tremendous way to learn about your neighbors by meeting them in the least pleasant of circumstances…. I think we’re seeing not just what is sad or what is missing, but the resilience in the community.”
Working alongside Diné (Navajo) volunteers and delivering to families on the Navajo Nation has allowed for a cultural education that might not have been possible in the backcountry, Rothman added, even if it meant getting lost more than a few times on the mazes of remote dirt roads on the Navajo Nation.
For Sam Stockton, a 22-year-old crew leader from Charleston, W.V., the effects of the pandemic in San Juan County had parallels with his home state.
“It’s been a little bit reminiscent of back home — just a bit — because the sense of community is similar to what I’ve seen in coal mining towns that I’ve lived around or near,” Stockton said. “And I just think this whole event is really bringing to light the way that poverty leads people to kind of lean on each other a bit more. But then if we’re supposed to be socially isolated, where does that leave people in need?”
Mobilizing civilian corps of young people to respond to crises has a long tradition in the United States, Bastian said, and many present-day conservation crews see themselves as heirs to the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which built corals, stock improvements and trails that still see use in San Juan County.
Wanda Raschkow, an archaeologist with Friends of Cedar Mesa who has researched the CCC’s work in southeast Utah, said Blanding had one of the largest camps in the state in 1935. Crews of young men, mostly from the East Coast, built everything from truck trails to toilets, she said, and the bulk of their pay was sent back home to support family members.
“There was one winter where they had really severe weather, and the CCC delivered food to livestock and people [in the area]," Raschkow said, noting the parallel with the Canyon Country Youth Corps leaders’ work with BAMA.
“We see ourselves filling a [similar] role," Bastian said. "We don’t fully know what that role is yet, but we just feel like we’re going to respond to this crisis the way the CCC responded to their crisis.”
It’s an idea that has the potential to see a revival. Democrats in Congress recently proposed creating an Emergency First Responders Corps that would, among other duties, “conduct wellness checks and assist the elderly and disabled,” an idea that has strong bipartisan support, according to one poll.
For the Canyon Country Youth Corps leaders, the opportunity to pitch in and help respond to the pandemic was a cause for gratitude.
“We were so lucky to be doing something so impactful in a time where people are sitting at home paralyzed,” Rothman said.
Editor’s note: Reporter Zak Podmore and his spouse, Amanda Podmore, have volunteered with Bluff Area Mutual Aid.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.