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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


Memphis woman moves to Navajo Nation to battle COVID-19: ‘It’s not what I do but why’

Public health official follows science and faith to center of pandemic

A Team Rubicon volunteer from Boston holds a COVID-19 test in the emergency room of the Kayenta Health Center on the Navajo reservation in Kayenta, Ariz., on April 23, 2020. The Navajo reservation has some of the highest rates of coronavirus in the country. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
A Team Rubicon volunteer from Boston holds a COVID-19 test in the emergency room of the Kayenta Health Center on the Navajo reservation in Kayenta, Ariz., on April 23, 2020. The Navajo reservation has some of the highest rates of coronavirus in the country. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

It’s the end of another exhausting day on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

The long drive on Interstate 40 in New Mexico back to her hotel gives Janice Ballard a lot of time to think.

About her husband and family more than a thousand miles to the east in Memphis.

About her work now in the Navajo Nation, which has more COVID-19 cases per capita than New York City.

About why she went into public health in the first place.

“It’s not what I do but why,” she explains. “It’s important to have a why.”

For the past 10 weeks, Janice’s what has been helping her colleagues manage a brutal coronavirus outbreak in a nation that has a fifth of the population of Shelby County, but more than double the number of deaths.

Janice’s why goes back much further. It took her from Guyana, a tiny nation in South America where she grew up, to Crichton College in Memphis in 2001.

It took her from the University of Memphis, where she earned a master’s degree in public health in 2011, to Nigeria, where she battled HIV/AIDS, and to Haiti, where she confronted cholera.

Janice Ballard and her husband, Monroe Ballard Jr.
Janice Ballard and her husband, Monroe Ballard Jr.

In late March, it took her to the Navajo Nation, where she enlisted in the COVID Care Force.

The faith-based nonprofit has sent hundreds of doctors, nurses and public health professionals to New York, New Mexico and other coronavirus hot spots.

The organization was founded by Dr. Gary Morsch, a Kansas City physician, a Church of the Nazarene leader, and a mentor for Janice, who grew up Nazarene.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the essential role of public health in controlling infectious disease outbreaks.

Applications to the U of M’s graduate program are up 50%. And in August, the school will begin offering a bachelor’s degree in public health for the first time.

Janice went into public health to help people. She figured she’d study and work to contain serious but small outbreaks of tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS.

Since she majored in biology at Crichton College, she’s found a number of ways to work in public health.

As a lab manager for Key Biologics. As director of Healthy Shelby. And as executive director of Health in the Heartland, a rural health initiative in the Missouri Bootheel.

”Not everyone in public health goes to work in the middle of a pandemic,” Janice said.

“People are dying”

As a child in Guyana, Janice would cordon off a corner of her family’s modest living room and turn it into a hospital.

She’d use hair pins to give her “sick” parents and friends shots to make them better.

“I wish it were that easy now,” she said. “But until there’s a vaccine, we have to fight this every day. People are dying.”

Native Americans make up about 10% of New Mexico’s population, and about 70% of its COVID-19 hospitalizations.

They are dying of COVID-19 at rates 19 times that of all other populations combined, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

The Navajo Nation spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, covering an area about half the size of Arkansas.

“The coronavirus has really taken a toll on the Navajo Nation,” Janice said. “But the local health care workers are the real front-line heroes in this fight.”

Janice is there to lend support to the Indian Health Services and the New Mexico Department of Health.

Her work takes her from Albuquerque, where she stays, to clinics and hospitals in Gallup, New Mexico, and Winslow, Arizona, which are about 130 miles apart and 4,000-8,000 feet up.

She has adjusted to the altitude and the distance, but not the extreme poverty.

“When I got here just at the beginning of the surge, I was shocked by the degree of poverty,” she said. “I thought the days of such extreme poverty in America were long gone.”

About 40% of Navajo residents are unemployed and live below the poverty line and without electricity or running water.

“Makes it difficult to wash your hands a lot,” Janice said.

The Nation is sparsely populated, but most residents live in small homes with multiple generations.

“When you get sick, you’re supposed to stay home, but for many Navajo, staying home has meant being exposed to the coronavirus,” Janice said.

Most Navajo must travel 30-45 miles to buy groceries or take clothes to a laundromat. The few stores tend to be very crowded.

“When a family goes to the store, they all pile in a truck and go together,” Janice said.

Like most people living in poverty, the Navajo suffer from high rates of diabetes, hypertension and other chronic conditions that render them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Janice has seen entire families infected with the virus.

“These are not mansions they’re living in,” Janice said. “They live in very humble and crowded abodes. When grandma gets sick, everyone gets sick.”

“If I can help somebody”

Sometimes, as she drives along Interstate 40, Janice hears an old gospel song in her head.

It’s a Mahalia Jackson song she heard every Tuesday in her fourth-grade classroom at a church school in Guyana.

If I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought, if I can spread love’s message, as the Master taught, if I can help somebody, as I pass along, then my living shall not be in vain.

Janice’s mother, sister and brother still live in Guyana. She was going to visit them in late February, but canceled the trip as news of the virus spread.

Now the virus is keeping her away from her Memphis family as well.

When Janice moved to Memphis in 2001, she felt at home almost right away.

“The hospitality and friendliness reminded me of the culture I was raised in,” she said. “Especially the faith community.”

That faith community became her new family.

With 2 million members, the Church of the Nazarene is the largest Wesleyan-holiness denomination in the world. The disciples of Jesus of Nazareth were originally called “Nazarenes.”

Janice found a Nazarene church in Memphis. Then she found a Nazarene family – the Ballard family, founders of Neighborhood Christian Centers, the state’s largest Christian social agency.

Janice is married to Monroe Ballard Jr., NCC’s chief operating officer.

Ephie Johnson, her sister-in-law, is president and chief executive officer.

Dr. JoeAnn Ballard, her mother-in-law, is founding director.

“Janice felt like family right away,” JoeAnn Ballard said. “She’s a faith girl. She wants to do the work of the Lord.”

JoeAnn Ballard and her late husband, Monroe Sr., founded the ministry in 1978.

Last year, it helped more than 50,000 with food, clothing, tutoring, housing, youth, parenting, emergency assistance, foster care, job training, church planting and Bible study.

“Janice married into a family with the same ideals,” said Monroe, who also is interim pastor at Friendship Church of the Nazarene. “Mission work, helping the less fortunate, it’s part of our DNA. I worry about her, but I know she’s doing what God wants her to do.”

Janice and Monroe talk by phone several hours a day. She came home for a week last month to decompress. She self-quarantined in the guest room.

“I took a few days off to mourn and lament,” she said. “And to be with my family. I think this pandemic has taught us all that it’s really important to make time for the people you love.”

“I do my part and pray a lot”

Janice keeps a roll of disinfectant wipes and a bucket of bleach water by her hotel room door.

As soon as she enters the room, she puts the mask and gloves she wore all day in a garbage bag.

She cleans everything – the door, her phone, watch, purse, laptop, even her shoes.

She puts the clothes she wore that day in another bag on the “dirty side” of the room and showers.

Then she wipes down everything on the “clean side” of the room.

“I’m not a person to say Jesus will protect me from COVID,” Janice said. “I believe God protects, but I also use soap and common sense. The rest is really beyond my control.”

Dr. Diana Hu, left, and a colleague wear personal protective equipment as they work in the COVID-19 screening and testing tent in the parking lot at Tuba City Regional Health Care on the Navajo Reservation in Tuba City, Arizona on April 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Dr. Diana Hu, left, and a colleague wear personal protective equipment as they work in the COVID-19 screening and testing tent in the parking lot at Tuba City Regional Health Care on the Navajo Reservation in Tuba City, Arizona on April 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Janice went to the Navajo Nation to lend a hand, to support her Navajo and New Mexico colleagues in their efforts to slow the transmission of a highly infectious and lethal disease.

She also came to listen and learn. She knows that every culture has its own challenges and its own gifts and strengths.

“The people here are so family-oriented and so gracious,” Janice said. “They have a spiritual strength that is truly inspiring. I’m just trying to do my part. I do a lot of listening.”

She also does a lot of praying.

She prays for the nurses, doctors, public health professionals and volunteers she works with every day. They inspire her.

“They are so dedicated and conscientious,” Janice said. “No one could have planned for this pandemic, but they have responded heroically.”

She prays for friends and colleagues who have gotten sick, and for the families of those who have died. They keep her focused.

She prays for the Navajo she has met over the past few weeks, deeply spiritual people struggling daily to defend themselves from an invisible and deadly invader. They motivate her.

“I’m not here anymore just as a public health person,” she said. “I’m here to help my new friends and neighbors.”

Their efforts have worked. The Nation passed its peak demand on health care services a month earlier than expected.

The Navajo Nation had one of the strictest stay-at-home orders in the country. That included 57-hour weekend curfews from 8 p.m. on Fridays until 5 a.m. on Mondays.

But this weekend, for the first time since early April, the curfew was imposed only overnight.

Janice plans to stay “until it’s over, whenever that might be.”

At the end of every long day on the pandemic front lines, Janice says, she’s physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. She’s also energized.

“I am getting to live out my mission every single day,” she said. “I wake up every day with a sense of purpose. I know why I’m here.”

To learn more about the COVID Care Force, visit

This story first appeared at under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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