Wings of America administers running and fitness clinic to Diné youth

By Quentin Jodie
Navajo Times

RED MESA, Ariz., July 4, 2013

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(Times photo – Ravonelle Yazzie)

TOP: Wings of America mentor Kailee Birdinground, second right, and her colleagues play “Capture the Goat” at the running and fitness camp at Red Mesa High School on Friday.

MIDDLE: A participant from the running and fitness camp conducted by Wings of America grabs his lunch tray on Friday at Red Mesa High School.

BOTTOM: Wings of America director Dustin Martin, left, speaks with 6 year-old camper Bilíí’ Blackhorn at a fitness and running camp held in Red Mesa, Ariz.




In response to the obesity epidemic on the Navajo reservation the Wings of America are once again using its muscle to educate the youth about making healthy lifestyle choices.

According to a report by the Legislative branch, the obesity rate in 2009 within in the eight service units of the Navajo Area Indian Health Service range from 23% to 60% for all age groups while the overweight rate ranged from 17% to 39%.

Because of those the numbers the Santa Fe-based organization reaches out to a dozen or so communities and sponsors a running and fitness camp each summer.

On June 27-28, they co-hosted a camp with the Four Corners Regional Health Center in Red Mesa, Ariz., with 65 kids signed up on the first day.

Forty-five of those kids showed up on the final day, which left an impress on Wings director Dustin Martin.

"We are really happy with the turnout," Martin said last Friday. "We had a lot of returners even though the kids didn't have to show up for summer school today."

Including the Red Mesa camp, the group has sponsored six camps and by the end of the summer the Wings organization will have conducted 14 such camps on the Navajo reservation.

According to Martin, the success of their program has garnered enough attention that in 2012 the Nike N7 Foundation gave a donation to the organization so that they can expand their services.

At the end of this year the Wings group will have administered 11 additional clinics with five of those camps taking place on Pueblo land, including the Zuni camp this past week.

Martin was happy to announce their services were also being offered in Oklahoma and in the New York area.

"We've been very busy for the last few weeks," Martin said. "We're about to get done with our first block of camps."

Martin said he has enlisted 12 college and high school aged facilitators who serve as mental peers with Charnelle Curley and Bernard Martinez taking on the role as lead facilitators.

Both facilitators are based out of the Gallup area with Curley in charge of the west team, which covers the Tuba City and Chinle area, while Martinez takes care of the east team.

"Basically the emphasis about Wings is about running but we're out here to promote other sports in general," said Curley, who graduated in 2010 from Chinle High. "We just want to get everyone moving. We also talk a little bit about diabetes, nutrition and what exercise does to your body."


The Northern Arizona University junior said it's easy for the kids to relate to them since they are seen as role models.

"We were at that age at one time and I think when we talk to them we make things a little bit more interesting," she said. "We just make it fun from them."

Martin said that model works real well at filling the gaps that gets lost when an authority figure presents facts during a lecture.

"That has been our strongest point as a program and as an organization," he said. "Wings has always done its best to give back and I understand that it would be completely different if we had a 35 year old professional trainer who may technically be better at explaining exercise physiology but the kids don't see themselves in those people.

"I think what we are doing is great because our facilitators are setting the example and I feel that we're succeeding in that," he added. "We are using those talking points and we're conveying some of those message through our own experience."

At the camp in Red Mesa, the Wings group did just that while keeping the kids engaged with fun activities. As always these activities involves some form of exercise to keep them active.

"A lot of our camps are multi-generational," Martin said. "We have little ones and older ones but we are making them feel as if they are part of a team- the most important thing is the kids are laughing and having a good time."

Chinle resident Darrin Cly was one of the participants that showed up for both days. When asked why he made the hour-long trip to Red Mesa, Cly said he had a lot of fun.

"I like the games they introduced us," he said.

Besides the games, the curriculum included several mini-fairs that discussed topics related to health such as nutrition and Type II diabetes.

Those topics are of great concern for Charlene Poyer, a school health coordinator for the Four Corners Regional Health Center.

In her service unit area, Poyer works with nine schools within the Red Mesa community and throughout the school year they test the Body Mass Index levels for every child twice a year.

"This past year there was a 2% increase at every school," said Poyer of the BMI levels, which measures an individual's body fat percentage.

Based on their BMI levels this past spring, Poyer said more than half of the student population in the areas she covers are considered overweight.

"The increases we see are alarming but having Wings conduct their camp is a benefit because otherwise these kids would be at home with nothing to do," she said.

As for reversing the trend, Poyer said her program works with each school and provides them with a recreation specialist.

"We have some afterschool activities and the numbers we've seen has been pretty consistent," said Regina Blueyes, a recreation specialist with the Shiprock IHS office. "With every program we have a mixture of new and returning kids."

With every program, Poyer said the interest level varies so she liked the fact that the Wings facilitators were young mentors.

"Having a positive role model like Wings is a big influence on the kids," she said. "They're showing what kind of lifestyle they can have and that's a big plus."

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