Saturdays, for most people, are sleepy days: to catch up on odd jobs, take kids to soccer, see an occasional movie.
But for volunteers with the Adopt-A-Native Elder Program, Saturday was an early-rising, hard-working day. It was the culmination of weeks of preparation to coordinate the largest food run in the program's 10-year history - 45 vehicles loaded with more than 800 food and supply boxes - bound for the Navajo Reservation.The caravan included hundreds of volunteers, from young kids to one 86-year old Salt Lake woman, who came from all over the country donating their time and money (everyone paid their own travel expenses for the five-day excursion) to get the supplies to the reservation in time for Mother's Day.
"People have really been opening their hearts," said Brian Waller, the program's food run coordinator."The response from people nationwide has been overwhelming."
They came for a good cause, though, Waller said. They came because there are people in need.
Many of the 200 elders the program sponsors are women, between 60 and 100 years old.
"They are Native Americans living in a traditional manner on the reservation," Waller said. Many still live in the traditional hogans, with dirt floors and no electricity. The nearby roads are often nothing more than "unimproved dirt." Many of the elders cannot read or write.
Volunteer Micki Walker said the choice to become a part of the program was simple. "They need the help. And, it's just a feeling that what I can do, I'll do. Just to be there, and to be what little part I am - it's just a really rewarding feeling."
The program makes two supply runs per year, to correspond to the planting and harvesting seasons. Because, Waller said, to have enough food in the spring gives Indians hope for a healthy planting season, and in the fall, a good harvest.
"There's a lot of tradition that goes along with this," he said.
In addition, though, Waller said the program "gives hope to a lot of people and brings smiles to their faces." This year, deliveries included walkers, canes, new shoes, clothes and medical supplies, in addition to food.
That's what makes the program so fulfilling for volunteers, many of whom come back year after year, Waller said.
"When you see the smile on their faces, and the warmth and emotion in their lives, there's nothing like it. You can really feel good. It's not a welfare thing. You're really helping someone."
David Jacobsen, a volunteer for the past three years, said he got involved after hearing a presentation by program founder Linda Myers.
"She extended the invitation, so I came. I did the food run, and I adopted an elder. She's 88 and lives very removed from things. There's no water and no power.
"This is just a delightful opportunity to do service. I always very much look forward to visiting Hasbah. I often go in between runs. I paint in her home, cut wood in the winter and participate in her family."
The program is not just about service, though. Participants said they get a lot in return.
"These reservations are an oasis of Third World culture in a fast-paced world," Jacobsen said. "What I get is to slow down and live beside them for a few days. It seems like a little, but it's a lot."
Oscar Merz, another volunteer, agreed.
"It all has to be done. But it seems like the more you do, the more you receive. Not in a monetary way, but spiritually. It's something between me and the Creator."
The Navajo traditions have a lot to offer, Waller said. Their heritage is rich - thousands of years rich, he said, and everyone could gain by learning from them.
"They honor the land and their ancestors. They respect their elders. We're so caught up in this materialistic world that we've forgotten our past: We've forgotten our elders and the people who have brought us where we are. We could stand to learn from that."
Waller was surprised, albeit pleasantly, to see the response from the youths of the community. "We've had so many young people helping out, packing boxes and everything. They've come in every shape, color and what-have-you. We even had one kid in a dog collar! It was great to see him get so fired up, running around looking for ways to help."
In addition to the food runs, the program also organizes an annual Navajo rug and jewelry show and supplies hundreds of food certificates each year to the elders.