Begay gala raises $340,000 for scholarships

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Sept. 15, 2011

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Tribal leaders gathered at the Navajo Nation Museum Sept. 9 to host a gala dinner honoring four-time PGA tournament winner Notah Begay III, and raised $340,000 for scholarships in the process.

Called the 2011 Navajo Nation Fair Education Scholarship Gala, the event unveiled Campaign Adziil (strength) and was the first of many fundraising events to benefit Navajo students that tribal leaders have pledged to host.

Vice President Rex Lee Jim, who recommended Begay as grand marshal for the 65th Navajo Nation Fair Parade, said it is the goal of the Shelly/Jim administration to partner with successful Navajos and other tribal governments and organizations to help the Navajo Nation.

"My position has always been, 'Lets identify Navajo individuals that we admire who speak well, who dress well and who live well," Jim said, in his welcome address. "And ask ourselves, 'Ha'ash bi neesa? Who raised that individual?'"

Jim said Begay, a Stanford University alum, was selected as grand marshal because he has excelled as a professional athlete, scholar, community leader, health and wellness advocate, and philanthropist off and on the Navajo Nation.

Begay's nonprofit NB3 Foundation - established in 2005 to fight childhood obesity and the epidemic of type 2 diabetes among Native American youth - is central to the Shelly/Jim administration's partnership for health advocacy, Jim said.

The golf champion responded with equal grace, saying, "This is certainly a homecoming and it's a reflection of all the things that I am able to accomplish throughout my life."

He added that his Navajo and Pueblo cultural ties and family support were important to everything he has accomplished so far in life.

"We need to look back at the traditions. We need to look at our history. That tells us where we come from," Begay said, shedding tears of appreciation for the Navajo songs and prayers dedicated to him that evening. "What it can do is tell us where to go, because there's a lot of problems out there."

Through his foundation, Begay said, he stresses the importance of cultural identity, which he says has helped in his own home communities of San Felipe Pueblo and Tohajiilee Chapter.

At San Felipe, Begay started a soccer program that has proven successful, increasing physical activity among youth and involvement by their parents and the community.

He also started a summer junior golf program that teaches the joys of golf and individual character in Tohajiilee, which now boasts its first All-State golf player in Cody Wilson.

Begay said he is partnering with Johns Hopkins University to find a model that could be highly effective in helping Natives live longer, healthier lives.

In addition to his health message, Begay pledged $1,000 for each of the next four years to the Navajo Nation scholarship fund.

"It's a long time coming," Begay's father, Notah Begay II, said of the honor being paid to his son's efforts. "I always wished that the Navajo Nation would step up and recognize the strong partnership, which I believe should have been formed a little sooner, but better late than never. This is just the beginning."

The biggest contribution of the night came from Peabody Energy, which pledged a $320,000 contribution to the scholarship fund.

"Today on behalf of Peabody, we are here to put an endowment of seed money in the start of $80,000 a year for the next four years," said Brad Brown, senior vice president of Peabody Energy Southwest.

Brown said as companies and vendors, it's important to reach out to Navajo communities because there is a huge need for human capital on the Navajo Nation.

Jim said Peabody's latest contribution is separate from the money Peabody agreed to pay in the Aug. 4 settlement of the tribe's racketeering lawsuit against it.

No one at the dinner mentioned the new proposal by former President Peterson Zah and former BIA Regional Director Donald Dodge to put proceeds from that settlement into a scholarship trust fund that will generate college money for each baby born into the tribe. Asked if the Shelly administration supports the plan, Jim did not address the question directly, saying only that he was aware of it.

Jim said the Shelly administration challenges all companies that do business on the Navajo Nation to follow Peabody's example, adding that the goal of Campaign Adziil is to raise $25 million to $75 million in the next 45 years for scholarships.

According to Jim, about $2.5 billion is generated on the Navajo Nation, with over 85 percent of it spent in border towns, making millionaires in those towns from Navajo dollars. (Gallup is said to have the highest number of millionaires per capita of any city in the state.)

"We need to change that and keep it here, and make millionaires out of our own children," Jim said.

Ferlin Clark, former president of Dine College and now a personal aide to Jim, also pledged $1,000 for the next four years.

"The need is now and our students need help financially," said Clark, who served as master of ceremonies at the steak-and-lobster event.

On top of these contributions, Jim announced he's going to pledge $3,000 for each of the next four years.

Through Campaign Adziil, Jim said, he is going to turn to government employees, former scholarship recipients and university alumni networks for donations in an effort to increase scholarship funding for Navajo students.

"The contributions to the scholarship fund will provide more scholarships to eligible Navajo students to help them fulfill their goals of higher education," said Rose Graham, executive director of the Office of Navajo Nation Scholarships and Financial Aid.

According to Graham, ONNSFA awarded financial aid to 5,204 students this year. An estimated additional $50 million is needed annually to fund everyone who deserves help, she added.

"Each year, it becomes more evident that the Navajo scholarship program does not have enough funding to provide a scholarship to all eligible college students," Graham said. "Federal funding and corporate contributions have not kept pace with the rising demand for scholarships or the rising costs of attending college."

Current rules reduce the amount of aid to students whose parents have jobs, however, and the Zah-Dodge fund would erase that distinction. Instead, higher education would become the birthright of every tribal member, conditioned only on keeping his or her grades up.

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