ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A major health issue for Native people today is obesity and poor fitness levels, especially among the youth.
In 2005, the NB3 Foundation led by pro golfer Notah Begay (Navajo/San Felipe/Isleta) began to work on addressing health issues such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes facing Native American youth on reservations by building awareness and raising funds.
The funds were used to fund golf and soccer teams for Native youth including the sponsorship of a soccer club for children on the San Felipe reservation north of Albuquerque.
“I believe my foundation has a tremendous opportunity to raise awareness and be an advocate about particular needs that need to be addressed in Native American communities for youth,” Begay said. “A major goal for the foundation is to also partner with tribal communities.”
Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee), NB3 Foundation’s executive director, said the foundation is committed to coming to Oklahoma in 2011 to begin outreach using its soccer program.
“We’re hoping to start coming out to Oklahoma and doing some initial outreach through soccer camps and soccer education and really start the dialogue with Oklahoma tribes to keep our kids up and active, and soccer is a great vehicle in which to do that,” Echo Hawk said.
According to the American Diabetes Association, Native children and adolescents have a higher incidence of obesity than any other minority group.
Typical measures that start at home, like a balanced diet, are only part of a solution. Another component includes regular physical activity such as team sports.
Statistics gathered by the NB3 Foundation show 60 percent of children at San Felipe are overweight.
“So statistically, we are fighting some serious numbers at San Felipe, and unfortunately it’s not just San Felipe-specific,” Echo Hawk said. “We are seeing similar rates of children being overweight and/or obese in tribal communities. The average now is well over a third of our children in tribal communities are obese.”
However, at San Felipe the soccer programs are making a difference because the NB3 Foundation with help from the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health has seen “significant” improvement in children in their overall physical fitness after 10 weeks in the program.
Johns Hopkins helped evaluate and design the soccer program to see where improvements were needed and where the foundation was having success, Echo Hawk said.
Physiological measurements of the children participating in the soccer program were taken as well as the impact of life skills and academic performance
“They worked with us to design it, but they also made sure it was culturally appropriate as well and something the community felt good about,” she said.
Along with providing opportunities for exercise, the foundation is working to add a proper nutrition component to their model, Echo Hawk said.
“We understand it really starts at home. It’s about families and not just kids making a commitment to healthy lifestyle changes,” she said. “We know it’s a long-term fight, but we really feel based on where we are coming from we can honestly say our programming does impact the physical fitness of kids. We’re excited to begin taking steps to take our program outside of New Mexico.”
More than 200 youth participate in the San Felipe Soccer Club and field nearly 20 teams, and now the program has its own soccer field to practice and play.
The recently completed $785,000 collegiate-size field is 117 yards by 72 yards. The NB3 Foundation contributed $535,000 to the project and San Felipe $250,000.
The field was designed in conjunction with the pueblo and includes a walking trail around it.
“We’re calling it a soccer field and community park. It’s about creating a space where parents can come out and be active with their kids,” Echo Hawk said.
She said San Felipe is the NB3 Foundation’s model program. The foundation hopes to use the success of the San Felipe model for other Indian communities.
“Our larger vision is that one day we would like to see NB3 soccer programs all over Indian Country that are really, truly tested programs that we know can help youth,” Echo Hawk said. “When we start reaching out to Indian Country…we really want to them give them solid tools to fight obesity.”