Called to a New Mission: Local Veterans, Nonprofits Lead Local Relief Efforts for Elders & Families in Need.

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May 27, 2020 - For local veterans—many of whom are UNM-Gallup students or alumni—the recent COVID-19 pandemic has brought an unwelcomed sense of isolation that has persisted over the past several months due to stay-at-home and other public health orders in McKinley County and the Navajo Nation. “I rely on staying busy and active as a way to combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” says Christian Vasquez, who serves as vice president of the UNM-Gallup Veterans Resource Center (VRC) and co-founder of the local nonprofit Strengthening Nations. “This pandemic has taken a mental health toll on veterans because it has cut off a lot of resources that were available to socialize and engage in personal self-development.”

While the pandemic has impacted veterans through this isolation, it has also provided a unique opportunity for Vasquez to join with other veterans in the area, including VRC president Eric Thomas. Together, Vasquez and Thomas have reached out to veterans locally to seek their service once again—this time as volunteers at Strengthening Nations, which was founded by Vasquez and Pat Nelson to provide supportive and advocacy services to domestic violence survivors; but has recently transitioned into a resource and distribution center for food and supplies for those less fortunate in our community.

“We get these huge food trucks—literally a whole semi full of supplies—and local veterans have shown up to unload the supplies. We have to sanitize and package everything. We break the flour, rice, and beans down from 50-pound bags into 5-pound bags,” explains Vasquez. “The number of veterans who have stepped up is amazing, and they always show up and say: ‘Hey, where do you want me? Let’s do this.’ It’s just amazing how they’ve stepped up and helped out.”

It’s what veterans do, according to Thomas. “We signed up to help people,” he explains. “That’s a motto that we continue to live up to—even with each other at the VRC. We still help each other out, whether it’s giving a ride home, helping with homework, or other types of help someone needs. We still have our community here, and that’s why I decided that partnering with Strengthening Nations would be beneficial to our community.”

When speaking with Vasquez and Thomas, their brotherhood and sense of service is palpable—and it’s easily apparent that their shared mission to help the local community and the Navajo Nation with food and other resources is a mission they take seriously. Since March, they estimate that over 800 boxes have been distributed—not counting all of the baby supply kits and individual cleaning supplies Strengthening Nations and its teams of volunteers have assembled.

Strengthening Nations also collaborates with and supports efforts of Indigenous Life Ways and its McKinley Mutual Aid health and help network that brings food and supplies to elders and families in McKinley County. “We’ve also served the Navajo Nation, and we’ve taken boxes down to Zuni. Strengthening Nations has a large client base that are veterans, too” adds Vasquez.

Our community of veterans stepping up to serve those in need during this pandemic—along with these area nonprofits—is truly the inspiration that we all need at this time.

If you’d like more information on the efforts or organizations mentioned in this article, feel free to contact or research:

Eric Thomas
UNM-Gallup Veterans Resource Center

Christian Vasquez
UNM-Gallup Veterans Resource Center & Strengthening Nations

Indigenous Life Ways

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