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SUNDAY FEATURE: 2020 Organization of the Year: The community of Flagstaff, Coconino County
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SUNDAY FEATURE: 2020 Organization of the Year: The community of Flagstaff, Coconino County


Editor's note: As I mentioned in a column last month, there are countless individuals in Flagstaff and the entire Coconino County area worthy of recognition for what they've done during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their work has encompassed efforts both big and small: the grueling shifts being put in by doctors, nurses, and thousands of other medical professionals and healthcare workers; underappreciated jobs such as teachers adapting to online curriculum, or leading in-person classes despite knowing the risks; grocery store employees who abruptly found themselves as front-line workers when COVID hit; nonprofits and charities providing for those in need while facing reduced donations themselves; local businesses trying their best to stay afloat amid an unprecedented economic downturn.

Traditionally, the Arizona Daily Sun runs articles at the end of the year about an important local initiative that goes back decades: the Citizens and Organization of the Year. This year the panel of past winners decided to honor everyone in the region rather than reward just one organization (see related box).

As such, this award and recognition is intended for the examples mentioned above but also for people of all walks of life, like parents and grandparents helping their young students with virtual learning, or neighbors coming together in a time of need, or anyone who did their part by wearing a mask, staying indoors when possible and social distancing. It belongs to the heroes we know about, and others whose contributions have gone unnoticed.

Covering the stories of tens of thousands of people is an impossible task, so we decided instead to spotlight some notable individuals in the community and get their accounts of what they've done to make Flagstaff and Coconino County a better place.

This year tested our resiliency, our empathy, our patience and our spirit. I hope and pray for a return to normalcy in 2021. In the meantime, here are just a few first-hand accounts of making life better in the pandemic. If you or someone you know has a similar story to share, let us know at And thank you for all you do.

Glenn Lovelady, Guardian Medical Transport

Even before COVID-19 hit, the need for helicopter emergency medical services was high, especially in rural areas of northern Arizona, says Guardian Medical Transport flight paramedic Glenn Lovelady.

“We have been seeing a large increase in volume. Some days you would come to work and have a little break where you’d only do two to three flights in that shift, and now it’s pretty average that you’re going to be flying four to five to six flights per shift, with calls pending,” Lovelady said.

Lovelady, the new base coordinator for Guardian Air’s Winslow location, explained that most flights to transport rural patients to hospitals in Phoenix can take four to five hours, plus additional time at the patient’s bedside and preparing for flight. Early in the pandemic, new personal protective equipment and safety measures only added to the preparation process, though Lovelady said because the Guardian team is used to working in emergency situations, the adjustments did not affect response times. But some measures like the additional PPE, which Lovelady said was often overly warm to wear while on the helicopter, were not always preferred.

“Not seeing people’s expressions or being able to smile at them to ease their mind, let them know that everything’s going to be OK, I feel like that’s been the biggest challenge for me personally,” Lovelady said of mask-wearing for both paramedics and patients.

Over the course of the year, he has worked with more sick patients than ever before and has seen COVID-19-related procedures change in a matter of months, from immediately intubating patients to now giving most of them oxygen instead.

“That’s going to be a lasting impression on me the rest of my life because we went from taking every patient intubated with medication drips with an hour to an hour and a half at bedside, depending on the patient, in full PPE, to just kind of like a basic patient that’s just on oxygen, our bedside patient interaction being 10 to 15 minutes and us being able to support these patients to get them down to Phoenix without having a difficult transport,” Lovelady said.

Because of the increase in call volume, fatigue has been an issue among paramedics this year as the pandemic continues, but Lovelady explained that teams and supervisors have been pushing through.

“I don’t think anyone got really any sleep those first couple of weeks or that first month. So seeing that is just really inspiring,” he said. “It’s been inspiring and still is inspiring because we’re all just banding together and pushing through. In that aspect, it’s been pretty amazing.”

Lucinda Yazzie, NACA

COVID-19 brought challenges to Flagstaff residents of all ages, genders and races. For Indigenous peoples, especially those experiencing homelessness, supporters like Lucinda Yazzie stepped in to help, providing resources for rent and utility assistance, transportation, funeral costs, personal protective equipment and more.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of being heard, having somebody hear them out and hear their frustrations, that sort of thing. With COVID, a lot of them have these anxieties and frustrations, so I just try to give them a little bit of that support,” said Yazzie, social support services case manager at Native Americans for Community Action.

NACA leaders recently created this position specifically to provide additional support for clients and indigenous populations during the pandemic. Yazzie began the role in July and has worked with up to 20 clients a month since, often by phone. She is just one part of NACA’s overall pandemic response, which has included providing more than 300 families on the Navajo and Hopi reservations with personal protective equipment and sanitization supplies.

“I feel good when I’m able to help someone resolve their situation. People are very thankful for what they can get,” Yazzie said. “A lot of these people don’t call to just ask for help. A lot of them are like, ‘I didn’t want to call, but I have no place else to call. I’ve never asked for help before but I need help now.’”

Unfortunately, NACA has not been able to provide all its clients’ needed services itself, such as rental assistance, after its annual fundraiser, the Sacred Mountain Prayer Run, was canceled. So Yazzie has been directing clients to other local organizations that can help through the Social Safety Net Coalition, a collaboration of nonprofits providing support in the areas of housing, food and finances.

Through this coalition, she has been able to refer clients to Flagstaff Shelter Services for printing services, a need she discovered during recent months as clients attempted to fill out applications for assistance.

“The community is strong. They reached out to each other to help the public. And I believe that’s part of that Social Safety Net Coalition,” Yazzie said. “It takes a number of people, in this case a number of organizations, to hold hands and build that safety net for those that are in need, and I feel like the community is strong because they care and they want to help.”

Jennifer Smith, Coconino County

Coconino County’s Jennifer Smith, a case administrator with the Public Fiduciary’s Office, calls herself and her teammates “extreme advocates” for adults who have mental, physical or developmental disabilities.

The description has become even more fitting during the pandemic as Smith and colleagues have worked to continue connecting their statewide clients to resources and coordinating their care from a distance.

“I know that people in the behavioral health system, people that I work with, we all love our jobs and they have made the efforts, like I have, to be there for our clients and bridge any gaps that come up with this pandemic,” Smith said. “It’s made me appreciate where I live and thankful that I’m a Flagstaff local.”

Smith’s current caseload is about 40 clients, up about 10 from pre-pandemic times because clients who are isolated from family and other support systems need the help now more than ever. Many services like doctor’s appointments have been switched to videoconferencing and Smith has expanded her role in other areas, such as helping clients order groceries for delivery.

“You find out more about your clients — what they like and don’t like — when you’re shopping for them, their entire grocery list versus before when we might pick up an item or two for them. That’s been a new transition and it’s been kind of fun,” Smith said.

She has also done deliveries herself, such as one recent trip to Phoenix to bring a new client his medical supplies that had been delivered to Smith’s office. They had never met in person until that day.

“The group home cracked open the window to his bedroom, and he and I did a high-five through the glass,” Smith said. “We had a conversation of about 20 minutes and in that time, I knew this person better than I’ve ever known him, and I had him for a few months on my caseload.

"But the fact that we got to go in person, have that connection, that’s something you take for granted and this pandemic has really shown us that. I treasure those special moments where you get to see them in person and know that you’re making a difference. Despite there being a glass window between us, we still had a connection there.”

She said she felt a similar connection to a married couple of 54 years that she was able to help reunite in one facility, even during a global pandemic, after a year of separation because of their different medical conditions.

“It’s the best story in the world that they’re together, that they get to sleep next to each other every night. Both of their medical conditions were deteriorating over the year that they weren’t together, and I can tell you that now they’ve been placed together, they are both stable and it’s wonderful. That’s the kind of thing that keeps me waking up every morning to do my job and it makes it all worthwhile,” Smith said.

Sky Atwood, FUSD

For some Flagstaff children, school is not just needed for education, but also for access to meals, so when schools were closed during the pandemic this year, districts received federal clearance to expand their summer meal service programs.

Flagstaff Unified School District set up curbside pickups of bagged breakfasts and lunches for local children, as well as mobile food deliveries, to make sure children were still fed.

District chef Sky Atwood oversaw the process along the way -- which from March through August provided more than 200,000 meals and has continued throughout the fall.

Behind the scenes, where Atwood works most days, there were shortages of different types of foods and supplies as people stocked up early in the pandemic and warehouses temporarily closed. Everything from brown paper bags to cereal and juice were difficult to find at times.

“Everything kind of went in stages, so it wasn’t like there was just a mad-dash shortage of stuff. It was kind of interesting to watch. For a while couldn’t get chicken or a lot of beef products, but mostly it was a lot of the prepackaged products, because a lot of us, especially K-12, were looking for stuff that was easy to put in bags,” Atwood said.

She attributes the success of FUSD’s food service program, which worked alongside the Flagstaff Family Food Center to get more meals out to families in need, to each of the school kitchen managers who have worked to prepare and distribute these meals throughout the pandemic.

“Every day, they’re still doing this kind of thankless job that people I don’t think really realize how much work and love they put into it and how much they care about their community. They didn’t care about COVID, they protected themselves the best they could, and they just put on their big girl panties and went to work,” Atwood said. “I just spent two weeks making nothing but brown bags by myself, and I told my director if I’d been doing what they’ve been doing since March, I would have quit in July. I don’t know how they’re still doing this. It’s mind-numbing just standing in one spot, putting things in bags, but their love for their kids and their community is what I think is pushing them.”

The program, which already provides meals for the weekends, will now be expanding to include dinners for local children.

“It feels really good to do this because we know these kids need food, so we’ll do whatever it takes,” Atwood said.

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Ari Wilder, Camp Colton

When FUSD schools closed their doors in the spring in response to COVID-19, so did Camp Colton, which despite its location in Hart Prairie is still considered a school site.

“While FUSD has remained remote, Camp Colton is not allowed to serve students,” said Ari Wilder, executive director of Friends of Camp Colton. “We thought, how can we support local teachers and provide fun and hands-on, experiential learning for kids even during this period of remote education? So what we’ve done this fall is design two experiences that basically provide materials for teachers that they can use, and then materials that go home with the students so they can get outside and learn things even though they’re participating in remote learning.”

This semester, Wilder has helped to create and send home about 500 of these activity kits to local second- and eighth-graders, teaching the younger students about concepts including the food chain and native plants and seeds, while the older group has taken on the topic of uranium mining through activities such as separating salt out of a sand mixture to simulate how the ore is mined and the contamination that can occur during the process.

Wilder said there is no substitute for the hands-on group experiences provided at Camp Colton, which typically serves between 800 and 1,000 every year across all its programs, but this alternative was better than nothing. She is hoping to be able to have students return to the camp in the spring of 2021 for day programs, as well as to start the long-awaited plans for a summer camp finally, but is ready to switch to a remote program for them, as well, if needed.

“Outdoor education is a really fantastic way to get a real world experience and to do something that ends up being very positive for kids emotionally, socially and personally," Wilder said. "The educational part of school has continued on [during the pandemic], so I think when kids are able to be back in school, they’re going to be in desperate need of the positive, social, outdoor experiences that really connect them again with their peers and their teachers and connect them with nature and just make them feel good about themselves and excited about learning."

“While we’re proud of the things we’ve done to reach kids and support teachers during this time, we’re also really looking forward to being able to have kids have that positive experience in nature that is what we are founded in.”

Shawn Mullaney, City of Flagstaff

In the spring and early summer, Shawn Mullaney felt the loss of sports almost as much as athletes themselves did.

“We go from having almost every weekend of the summer a softball tournament with the adult league or it could be youth at Thorpe Park and Continental, and there was nothing this year,” said Mullaney, parks supervisor with the City of Flagstaff. “That was a shock, being around town and activities not playing.”

As the summer continued, he also witnessed just how critical the outdoors became for community members seeking relief from quarantines, a trend he said lasted all year, bringing crowds of people to local parks and trails unlike anything Mullaney has seen in his 17 years with the city.

With more people visiting city parks more frequently, Mullaney, who oversees Flagstaff’s westside parks as well as mowing and turf crews, had to adjust his schedule to accommodate them. His team did more frequent maintenance at smaller neighborhood parks and altered its daily schedule to mow grass earlier in the day -- which proved to be a delicate balance between starting the motors up right at 6 a.m., when the city’s noise ordinance lifts, and interfering with morning park visitors like yoga classes.

But it was a change he was happy to make.

“We’re here for the community first, and we’re always going to try everything first not to negatively impact the community. If they’re using the fields or using the park, we’ll try to work around them while still getting our job done,” Mullaney said.

Communication and being cautious around others has been the most difficult part of doing his job during the pandemic, Mullaney said, both among his colleagues and with members of the public.

He recalled one day in particular:

“I was putting a wall in at Thorpe and a tennis ball came to my feet. They hit it over the fence. Your first reaction is you want to grab it and throw it back to them, but you look at them first and judge it, like, can I throw you your ball, can I touch it?” Mullaney said.

The moment reflected his department’s adjustments throughout the year as it has worked to ensure park users’ safety from not only falls and other accidents, but also from possible carriers of the coronavirus by spacing out equipment and conducting thorough cleanings. Mullaney said he expects these precautions to continue well into the future, possibly even in the development of new parks.

“Now there’s a new way to think about things because who knows how long this social distancing is going to be influencing and affecting our lives. We just need to adapt,” he said.

Krista Allen, NAU

Commencement is the single-largest event of the more than 150 that Krista Allen, director of university events, oversees every year at Northern Arizona University, so when the school closed its doors in the spring, just six weeks before the event was scheduled to occur, Allen and her team scrambled to put together an alternative.

“It takes hundreds of volunteers and staffing and outside services coming in to actually do a commencement for the amount of students that we graduate here, so trying to put the brakes on all of that and go into a virtual environment when none of us had done it before, it really was challenging,” Allen said.

This event was just the start of an entire collection of new approaches to event planning for Allen, who not only organized other virtual events for the Office of the President this year, but also supervised the COVID-19 testing at the NAU Fieldhouse that over the course of the fall semester administered more than 34,000 COVID-19 tests.

“Event planners are skilled in logistics and details, that’s what we do. We’re thinking from invitation lists all the way through napkin colors, through what food to serve and name tags — detail, detail, detail and logistics and movement, and those skills just really translated to a testing site,” Allen said, describing the factors needed in a testing site, including space for social distancing, nonporous surfaces for easy cleaning, available parking for community members and a secure storage room.

The Fieldhouse rose to the top of the list of potential locations for a testing site, she said, because unlike the Walkup Skydome on campus, there were no other activities likely to occur there.

“For me, going into this, it was a little scary. No one really knew what was happening overall with this virus and how fast it spreads and all of those things, so to think about having to come in and work a testing site was a little intimidating until we got up to speed on how do you keep yourself safe with appropriate PPE and wiping down surfaces and wearing masks,” Allen said.

She and her team continued to adjust throughout the year by researching how other organizations, from corporations to nonprofits, were finding ways to host events and celebrations safely even while social distancing.

“While there were events canceled, we also tried to bring forward the events we had been doing and still honor them,” Allen said. “People still were receiving awards, retiring and celebrating years of service. We don’t want people to not understand that we value and appreciate and recognize them, so how do we do that in a way that still makes it personal? I was very proud of our university and this team for trying to think through all of those things and come up with new ideas to still be able to deliver those recognitions, even if they had to be done in a different way.”

Julie Piering, the Plague Project

Putting the humanities in action was the goal of the Plague Project created by Northern Arizona University faculty this year to connect community members and their pandemic experiences through literature.

“The humanities really help us make meaning in our lives and our communities, and render intelligible the kinds of experiences that it’s hard sometimes to articulate,” said Julie Piering, chair of NAU’s Department of Philosophy and one of the faculty leaders of the Plague Project, a communitywide study of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, “The Plague.”

In its entirety, the Plague Project grew to include a 100-participant community book club, and also events featuring local health professionals’ and interfaith leaders’ interpretations of the book, and a university seminar during which students documented local pandemic stories that will be archived at Cline Library.

Following the large community response to this project, Piering is hoping to be able to offer similar virtual book clubs for Flagstaff residents.

“I think that shows the desire, the thirst in the community for these kinds of programs. … One of the strangely liberating aspects of running a book club on Zoom was it released many constraints, so folks could join from anywhere in the country and you’d see a child wander through the back of somebody’s square, which meant they didn’t have to worry about child care. One of the members would chime in and say, ‘Hold on a second, I’ve just got to stir. I’m making dinner,’” Piering recalled. “So it managed to marry the best parts of the familiar aspects of a book club with the best parts of the academic side because we did have experts in all these fields bringing to bear on the book their expertise.”

Now in her 14th year at NAU, Piering said she noticed how easily students were able to connect with the novel as they struggled through the challenges of attending university classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of the things about Camus’ 'Plague' is he recognizes the way in which the plague cancels all our plans and changes the way we see our lives unfolding, and we have to meet it with this kind of weary persistence that doesn’t lead much of anywhere, and the students are feeling that,” Piering said. “They are persisting, but it is wearisome and all the plans they made and the way they thought their college experience would unfold have been upended, so it really did resonate with them in incredibly meaningful ways.”

Erika Rodriguez-Escobar, Flagstaff Shelter Services

“I went from working at an office and having a normal 9-to-5 to working from home or doing housing assessments in the lobby of a hotel, to having a meeting with somebody in a parking lot,” said Erika Rodriguez-Escobar, housing case manager at Flagstaff Shelter Services, reflecting on 2020. “But we have to adapt.”

She just marked her one-year anniversary in November with FSS, where she spends her days working to connect individuals with needed resources even beyond housing. Throughout the pandemic, she has noted an increase in behavioral health and other medical needs among FSS’ growing clientele — community members in need of extra support in 2020.

“A lot of people are intimidated to reach out. There’s individuals that have never experienced the loss of a job or the loss of a home, so many times I do see clients that are embarrassed to reach out to those resources,” Rodriguez-Escobar said. “One of the biggest challenges is for us to get them to where they feel comfortable and to remind them that this is a difficult time. There is no handbook on how to get through a pandemic and we are there to help and to make this process a little bit easier for them.”

She has been encouraging clients to reach out to their support systems during this time because of the losses they have experienced this year: losses of loved ones, jobs, homes and even, in some cases, their health. Such support systems can include family and friends, she said, but also medical and behavioral health providers and resource access points like FSS.

To continue providing shelter services safely this year, only a limited number clients were on-site sheltered, with the rest placed in city hotels to allow for social distancing. FSS staff wore personal protective equipment, were trained to recognize COVID symptoms and installed handwashing stations donated by community members at the shelter.

Rodriguez-Escobar said the pandemic has opened her eyes to the great needs that exist in the community and that she is hopeful the conversations happening among local charities now will be the cause of long-lasting change for the very people who keep her motivated every day.

“They’re so resilient and I’m so honored to work with them. They face so many challenges, not just within this pandemic, so when you throw a pandemic on top of that, they’re very inspiring to me because they’re able to persevere with everything going on,” Rodriguez-Escobar said.

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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