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    Knights in New Mexico and Hawaii aid indigenous communities stricken by coronavirus

    by Carl Bunderson 7/1/2020
    Jeremy Boucher, Lance Tanner and Supreme Director Patrick Mason — all members of Fray Marcos Council 1783 in Gallup — unload a trailer of supplies for the Acoma people in New Mexico. The Knights organized a COVID-19 Relief Canteen to bring supplies to Native American communities afflicted by the pandemic. Photo by Johnny Jaffe

    The Order’s call to “Leave No Neighbor Behind” this past spring had a special urgency for Supreme Director Patrick Mason, a member Fray Marcos Council 1783 in Gallup, N.M. He knew his neighbors in nearby Native American reservations were particularly threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact.

    “Native populations are always hit disproportionately hard by pandemics,” said Mason, who is also a member of the Osage Nation and a board member of Life Is Sacred, a prolife Native American organization. “The 1918 flu wiped out entire villages. The H1N1 death rate in Native American communities was four times the national average.”

    In March, Mason and his brother Knights got together to brainstorm what they could do. At first, their goals were modest. “We said, ‘You know what, if we can only feed 10 families, then let’s feed 10 families,’” Mason explained.

    But in the weeks that followed, the Knights delivered food to thousands of Navajo and other native families in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. They also contributed to similar efforts in Hawaii, where Knights helped launch the Küpuna Needs Project to aid elderly native Hawaiians on Oahu. Together with partnering organizations and initiatives, the Knights have put their faith in action by providing muchneeded food for their neighbors on the margins.

    “It’s been amazing,” Mason said. “Banding together with our brothers, we’re able to accomplish great things.”


    The Knights in Gallup had good reason to be concerned for native communities as the coronavirus spread. Many homes are multigenerational, with grandparents helping to raise grandchildren. Running water is not universal, making frequent handwashing more difficult. And the rate of diabetes — a condition that increases the danger of the virus — is high.

    According to the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA, five Native American tribes, including the Navajo Nation, have higher per capita infection rates than New York state.

    Moreover, the strict lockdown measures reservations instituted to combat infection made it difficult for many to get supplies.

    Supreme Director Mason worked with Jeremy Boucher, also a member of Council 1783 and co-director of the Southwest Indian Foundation, to make a list of those most in need in the area. Donations of food and money were collected by Knights in New Mexico, with the help of the state council. Many food boxes were assembled at a local grocery store owned in part by Lance Tanner, also a member of Council 1783.

    The Knights began filling a trailer with boxes of food to be distributed where most needed; each box had enough groceries to feed a family of four to six for about two weeks. The Knights of Columbus COVID-19 Relief Canteen made its first delivery in early April to the Acoma Pueblo.

    Brian Vallo, governor of Acoma Pueblo, thanked the Knights on behalf of the community. “Recipients of these food donations are just so grateful and appreciative,” he said. “I know that my Acoma people … are offering prayers in response to the generosity.”

    The Supreme Council has contributed $40,000 in matching grants to the project, which has provided more than $320,000 worth of food to Navajo, Acoma, Zuni and native Hawaiian communities. Knights have delivered an estimated 3,000 food boxes to tribal leaders, who distribute them directly to native families in need.

    “Pope Francis is always talking about going out to the peripheries,” said Boucher. “Leave No Neighbor Behind is really encouraging us to do that, to go outside of our comfort zone, and remember that it’s not just our family and friends who are our neighbors.”

    Volunteers with the Kupuna Needs Project, including Knights from several Oahu councils, gather May 2 to package and prepare deliveries for the elderly and vulnerable. Ryan Fielding (center, with his dad, John) started the delivery service with help from John and his brother Knights. Dallas Carter (far right) coordinated additional funding for the project from Knights in New Mexico. Photo by Michelle Mishina-Kunz


    Meanwhile, 5,000 miles away, Knights on Oahu were making a similar effort to provide food and other supplies to küpuna, or elderly native Hawaiians, through the Küpuna Needs Project.

    Seventeen-year-old Ryan Fielding, the son of Knight John Fielding, started the program in March. Ryan, whose grandparents live with his family, said he “started thinking about all the other küpuna who are having difficulties just getting basic necessities.” So he set up a hotline for any küpuna needing groceries delivered.

    Several local K of C councils soon offered support, including St. Michael the Archangel Council 16741 in Waialua, Father Damien De Veuster Council 6906 in Aeia, and his father’s, Our Lady Queen of Peace Council 5000 in Honolulu.

    Help came from further afield, too: After Dallas Carter, a member of Council 16741 and of Life Is Sacred, told Patrick Mason about the project, the Knights in New Mexico contributed enough money to fund it for two weeks.

    “We will continue to stand in the breach and do everything within our ability to help those in most need on our island during this pandemic,” Carter said. “Now is the time for us to live our Catholic call to serve those in need.”

    Küpuna Needs has responded to hundreds of calls, assembling and delivering two-week food and toiletry packages to küpuna and other vulnerable people across the island. It has also partnered with several meal-delivery nonprofits, helping to deliver hundreds of meals each day to elderly residents.

    “A lot of them break down in tears,” Ryan Fielding said, “They really need help, and they never thought that they’d be asking for supplies in their life.”

    Ryan’s father, John, a past grand knight of Council 5000, described delivering a package to a woman living alone.

    “She told me that I was literally the only human being she’d seen in two weeks, and that she’s scared to leave her house,” he said. “Knights have provided not only physical essentials, but also consolation during this very hard time. This is truly what the Knights are all about.”

    The witness of the Knights has been inspiring, Ryan said: “Seeing them in action has really helped me understand more about my faith and more about how we should be helping other people.”

    As for Mason, he has seen the Leave No Neighbor Behind effort in light of Christ’s commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself ” (Mt 22:39).

    “I have great hope because God always brings great good out of bad situations — and I’m seeing the good that’s coming out of this and the love that’s growing between neighbors and peoples,” Mason said. “When the dust settles, I like to think this world is going to be a much better place because we decided to rise to the occasion, and truly leave no neighbor behind.”

    CARL BUNDERSON is a reporter for Catholic News Agency based in Denver and a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Council 13205 in Littleton, Colo.



    Saskatchewan State Deputy Chris Bencharski (right) and Grand Knight Kevin Rutt of Meadow Lake Council 5259 sort groceries at Door of Hope, a food pantry in Meadow Lake that serves many indigenous clients. Photo by Natanis Davidsen

    Saskatchewan Knights traveled hundreds of kilometres north in June, hauling more than $12,000 of food to two remote villages pummeled by the coronavirus pandemic.

    It wasn’t possible to go sooner: The entire far north region was placed under a strict travel lockdown in late April, as the coronavirus began to spread. The center of the outbreak was the village of La Loche and the adjacent Clearwater River Dene Nation. This combined area, which has only about 3,200 residents, saw nearly 200 cases of COVID-19 by late May.

    The Knights, led by State Deputy Chris Bencharski, brought food hampers to Our Lady of Visitation Catholic Church in La Loche, to be distributed by the parish. They also made a delivery at Mary Magdelene Catholic Parish in Beauval, a village of about 700.

    “There is great need in the aboriginal communities in the north because of many socioeconomic issues, including a lack of well-paying jobs and the high costs of goods and services,” Bencharski said. “And now with the COVID-19 situation, there is even a greater need.”

    Councils across Saskatchewan contributed funds to purchase the food, surpassing a matching grant of $5,000 from the Supreme Council Leave No Neighbor Behind Fund.

    The Saskatchewan Knights of Columbus Charitable Foundation has also made grants to food pantries with many indigenous clients, including Guadalupe House in Saskatoon and Door of Hope in Meadow Lake. At Door of Hope, the $1,500 donation was supplemented by 1,000 pounds of groceries collected and delivered by members of Meadow Lake Council 5259, including State Deputy Bencharski.

    Leave No Neighbor Behind has been a spur to action for the Knights in Saskatchewan, he said: “Aiding families is one reason the Knights of Columbus were formed. Leave No Neighbor Behind is an example of our principle of charity becoming real in the lives of those who require help.” Reported by Cecilia Hadley, senior editor



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