MONTEZUMA CREEK, San Juan County — Pete Sands was scrolling through Instagram Thursday night when he thought he saw a familiar face on the cover of Time.
“I thought, ‘That guy looks like me!’” he said laughing, because it was a picture of the actor, activist and creator of Utah Navajo Health System’s COVID-19 Relief program, which was honored as one of Time’s Guardians of the Year. “It was definitely a shocker.”
Sands and Utah Navajo Health System were honored along with other front-line health care workers and Dr. Anthony Fauci as Guardians of the Year — a feature that is part of the magazine’s Person of the Year awards. Sands said he was flattered when a Time reporter called and just wanted to include them in the story.
“They contacted me about three weeks ago saying they wanted to have a photojournalist come out and just shadow me for a day,” he said. “We connected, and he came out on a day he could be with me. I did an interview the weekend before. ... But I had no idea it was for Person of the Year.”
Sands was in between projects when he returned to his hometown of Montezuma Creek and took a job as the communications director for Utah Navajo Health System, a nonprofit that serves the health and medical needs of those living on the Utah section of the Navajo Nation, as well as some of the adjacent communities. One of the first things he did was start a firewood delivery program for Navajo elders.
When COVID-19 hit, Sands realized the virus would be particularly devastating to the rural elder population, especially since about 25% of those living on the reservation are without on-site water. He approached his bosses about starting a COVID-19 relief program, and they immediately embraced the idea.
Since then, he and his small but dedicated group of volunteers have delivered food, water and firewood to thousands each week. They’ve provided a lifeline to those isolating because they were at risk, as well as helping families who’ve become sick as the outbreak ravaged the Navajo Nation.
Sands has welcomed reporters from around the country because they relied on donations to be able to deliver the food and water people desperately needed when the Navajo Nation shut down for most of the last year. In an interview with the Deseret News last April, Sands said they couldn’t wait for the federal government to help them during the crisis.
“It is programs that are helping people, not the government,” Sands told the Deseret News as he delivered food and firewood. “People are helping people. We have to go back to the way of life where, if something were to happen, we have to be prepared for it.”
On Friday, the Navajo Nation reported 203 new cases with seven more deaths. Navajo Area Indian Health Services expects to receive its first shipments of the vaccine on Monday and Tuesday, which will be transported to Gallup Indian Medical Center, Chinle Clinic and Northern Navajo Medical Center.
As for the recognition, Sands said the honor is something everyone in the community shares.
“They’re just super proud,” he said of his Utah Navajo Health System colleagues. “It’s still settling in. It’s a huge deal for us.”
He said the COVID-19 Relief effort got a major boost from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Utah Trucking Association and SunTerra, which collaborated to provide three semitrucks of food each week for the last two months.
“It was very helpful,” he said. “It was a lot of food, and we were able to bring other relief programs that had died out back to life in Arizona and New Mexico.”
Sands said he’s still writing and working on film projects. He has a table reading next week with actors, and “it’s coming together nicely.” But his artistic endeavors don’t lessen his passion for helping to sustain the network he’s created among his community.
“Right now, it’s cold, so we have to shift our focus to firewood,” he said. “With the rising number of COVID cases, we’re ramping up home deliveries again. We knew it was going to happen. ... We knew there would be a second wave, and we are prepared for it.”
Those who want to donate to Utah Navajo Health System’s COVID-19 Relief program can do so at its website, UNHSInc.org, and Sands said people are also welcome to drop off donations of firewood and water at his office, which is adjacent to the Utah Navajo Health System’s Montezuma Creek Clinic in Montezuma Creek, San Juan County.
The story on Sands and the other Guardians of the Year can be found at Time.com.