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Cathy Free: Program aids Native Americans

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After a long trip on a bumpy red road to the most isolated stretches of the Navajo Indian Reservation, Lori Pavicic returns home dusty and tired, but anxious to go back every time she turns on a faucet or flips on a light.

Her Native American friends in Arizona's Luckachi Mountains have no running water or electricity, no plumbing, no modern conveniences of any kind.

"And yet, they're happy with their lives — they've learned to make do," says Pavicic, who wanted to share her story in Free Lunch to draw attention to the plight of Native Americans living in poverty.

"The Navajo people I've met are incredibly proud and incredibly resourceful. They don't want to accept help, even if they need it. So gaining their trust has taken some time."

Five years to be exact. This is the fifth year that Pavicic, 43, has helped Native American families with her "Hearts of Thunder" program, a charity she dreamed of starting since she was a child growing up in Texas.

"On family trips, we'd drive through reservations in Oklahoma and I was keenly aware that their lives were so much harder than mine," she says. "It touched my heart and I just knew that someday I needed to help them."

When she and her husband moved to Heber City several years ago, Pavicic saw her opportunity after driving through Arizona's Painted Desert and realizing that the Navajo Reservation was just a half-day away from her new neighborhood.

After a Native American friend put her in touch with a group building small houses for elders in the Luckachi community, she and her husband, Michael, enlisted volunteers to fill a truck with gently used donations. They soon had enough bunk beds, sofas, dishes and linens to furnish four homes, with the exception of one set of tables and chairs.

"I was feeling bad that we didn't have that fourth kitchen set," says Pavicic, "and then, just as we were getting ready to drive off, a man walked up and said, 'I'm not sure whether you can use this or not, but I have a table and four chairs.' That's the miracle of what we do. Somehow, we're able to get exactly what is needed."

When Pavicic learned that most Luckachi families had to make a 20-mile trip to a water pump to fill rusted barrels with enough water for the week, she and her volunteers contributed dozens of sanitary five-gallon containers and ice chests.

Now they're hoping to raise enough funds to build new pit-toilet facilities to replace wooden outhouses that are falling apart.

"Where I live, people have better shacks for their lawnmowers," she says. "It's been shocking to see this kind of poverty in America. They deserve better and I'm determined that they'll get it."

After discovering that many children didn't have books, paper or crayons at home, Pavicic started a back-to-school literacy program and collected thousands of used books, along with donations to buy new backpacks and supplies.

"When a child comes up to thank you and says they never had a book to call their own before, you know that you've made an impact," she says. "To spark that love for learning – there's nothing like it. The gratitude on their faces is something I'll always hold in my heart."

Anyone interested in contributing to the Hearts of Thunder program can contact Lori Pavicic at lpavicic@q.com.

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