A family tragedy at a young age set CIRI shareholder Cynthia Demientieff (Athabascan, Yup’ik and Navajo) on a lifelong path of helping others. Now a mother of six and a home health aide, Cynthia is navigating the COVID-19 outbreak both at home and with her clients, providing front-line care to some of our most vulnerable citizens during this critical time.
Home care is a critical component in the prevention and spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses. Health aides are often the first to notice changes in the health of a client and can encourage them to seek medical care sooner. In Cynthia’s case, she also functions as the gatekeeper for her clients. “My clients do have visitors, and if I notice a visitor with any sign of illness, I kick them out,” she laughs. “If the visitor is from out of town, I remind them to self-quarantine for 14 days and encourage virtual visits. It’s impossible to keep everyone completely isolated from everyone else, but visiting even one person, especially if that person is sick or elderly, exponentially increases the risk of more infections.”
Cynthia lost her father, original enrollee Nicholas Demientieff Jr., to a brain aneurysm when she was just 2 years old. The family was living in Bethel, Alaska, at the time. “My mother found my father on the kitchen floor and started performing CPR on him. It was January, and there was a lot of snow, and it took an hour for the ambulance to get to him. My thing became, I never want anyone to die unnecessarily. I hated that I grew up without a dad; I’ve always had a passion for helping people.”
After Cynthia’s father passed away, the family moved from Alaska to Arizona. A pediatric nurse, Cynthia’s mother worked 12-hour shifts and Cynthia stayed with her maternal grandparents while her mother was working.
“My grandfather only spoke Navajo, so I grew up speaking Navajo with him,” Cynthia recalled. “When I was studying to pass the state exam for my health-aide license, I would practice on my grandma – put her to bed, dress her, give her a bath. Neither she nor my grandfather had to go into a nursing home; my mom and I were able to care for them at home until they passed.”
“I love the elderly – they are my people!” Cynthia enthused. “I don’t think I could work in pediatrics like my mom; when I’m out shopping or running errands, I’m always drawn to the older folks. Even though I live in Oklahoma and my mom lives in Arizona, we still talk every day. I’m fortunate that my kids have the close relationship with her that I had with my grandparents.”
Along with her Navajo heritage, Cynthia is Athabascan and Yup’ik. Growing up in Arizona away from her father’s family, Cynthia didn’t have an awareness of her Alaska Native heritage. “But my mom would tell me stories of her time in Bethel,” she said. “My dad was a trapper, and they would snow machine out to check the traps. She said the growl of the wolves was so loud you could hear it over the snow machine. When I finally went back to Alaska, I was in the eighth grade and I’d never seen snow that deep! It was such a memorable experience.”
In 2017, Cynthia was selected to serve on CIRI’s Shareholder Participation Committee (SPC). With the goal of increasing two-way communication between CIRI and its shareholders, identifying issues of immediate and long-term importance to shareholders and descendants, and educating shareholders and descendants on the corporation’s mission, business operations, corporate policies and other matters, the SPC provides a vital link between CIRI and its shareholders.
The SPC is comprised of three subcommittees – the Anchorage Committee; the Alaska Committee, made up of shareholders who live in Alaska outside Anchorage; and the Lower 48 and Hawaii Committee. Cynthia currently serves as chair of the Lower 48 and Hawaii Committee.
“Since my dad passed away when I was so young, I don’t have any memories of him,” Cynthia said. “But since serving on the SPC, I’ve met people who knew him. They’ll ask, ‘Are you the daughter who moved back to Arizona?’ Like, my gosh, these people actually know me!”
“There’s a woman I served with on the SPC who called her mom and said, ‘You’ll never guess, but I’m sitting next to a Demientieff!’ My family is originally from the Anvik and Holy Cross area, and her mom is too. She was asking me questions and texting her mom, and I found out her mom lived next door to my grandparents and remembered my dad. I was crying; it was so emotional.
“Serving on the SPC is kind of like attending a family reunion – seeing familiar faces and being around people who look like you,” Cynthia continued. “When I found out I’d been selected, I was at dinner with my husband and I just started screaming. My oldest two daughters have attended the CIRI C3 Experience, and since serving, I’ve learned so much about CIRI and its family of nonprofits.”
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cynthia has seen her workload double. She’s also busy managing her children’s remote-learning activities since schools in her town have closed. But it’s worth it, Cynthia said. “The most important thing is to stay safe,” she emphasized. “While in-home aides are on the front lines of the crisis, everyone has a role to play in slowing the spread of the virus. When you wash your hands, wear masks and gloves, and practice social distancing, you protect not only yourself, but the most vulnerable among us.”