Stride, Soar, Succeed
American Indian kids, pro athletes and a Hollywood star have a ball at NativeVision summer camp
GIANT HEARTS, GIANT SOULS
Sunday, June 2 / Day 1
Suddenly, several thousand pounds of ice seems insufficient; 14,532 water bottles, a drop in the desert.
It’s nearing noon on the first Sunday in June: kick-off time for the 17th annual NativeVision Camp. Already, the contingent of coaches has broken a collective sweat that’s likely to last for the next three days, through Tuesday’s farewell ceremony. Rap music thrums as hundreds of flushed kids pour into “the Pit,” a polished basketball arena that’s the heart of Shiprock High. More stream out of buses encircling the front football field where a lone sprinkler struggles to keep the New Mexico desert at bay.
Here in the Navajo Nation, water flows only occasionally in the arroyos, and not at all in many of the run-down trailers and farms tucked into this landscape’s volcanic folds. Homes in this community, like those on other reservations across the country, often lack plumbing as well as electricity. Poverty gnaws at American Indians, especially the young. Compared with other children and teens nationwide, they have the highest rates of mortality, suicide, drug and alcohol use and dropping out of school.
As principal of Shiprock High, NativeVision volunteer Rick Edwards bears witness to the broken homes, domestic violence and self-destructive behaviors that plague his students. He holds out hope because he knows them; and because he knows them, he loves them. He tells them so every day, including today, as he waves them into the Pit.
“These kids have giant hearts and giant souls and just the kind of grit and fortitude it takes to overcome obstacles most of us never saw,” he says.
NativeVision’s capital is a real-world positive focus embodied by Edwards, one of 100 volunteers making sure that meals get served three times a day, and that the first-aid kits are stocked with sunscreen and the Porta Potties with TP. Volunteers, staff and professional athletes—all are in on the not-so-secret secret: NativeVision is a life-skills camp camouflaged in balls and lacrosse sticks, conducted on fields instead of in classrooms, led by big-time coaches instead of teachers. Their universal take-away message is simple: Stay in school. But nobody lets that get in the way of the fun. As a result, the camp appeals to kids spanning grades 3 through 12, and representing a diverse collection of tribal communities, including Navajo, Zuni Pueblo, Tohono O’odham, Hopi, Sioux, Jicarilla Apache, Dine, Santo Domingo Pueblo, White Mountain Apache, Laguna Pueblo, Cheyenne-Arapaho and Cochiti Pueblo.
Among the return campers arriving today: Robyn Soriano of Gila River, Arizona. The 17-year-old—her hair tinged with henna and her tank top proclaiming, “I STAND FOR MY REZ”—has attended for the past three years. This time, she’s convinced her 10-year-old sister Nikki to tag along. With other nonlocals, the two will camp out in tents on Shiprock High’s front lawn after spending their days on the back fields, playing lacrosse—one of the camp’s five sports. As the camp motto suggests, maybe they’ll be inspired at some point to “stride, soar, succeed”—and not just in their chosen sport (indicated by a color-coded wristband).
Like the Soriano sisters, 8-year-old Nicole Martin wears a green wristband. And like them, she is trying a game that’s foreign to her. By dinnertime, she’ll announce to everyone packed in the cafeteria: “I love lacrosse as much as I love my puppy!”
Nicole’s animated and incessant chatter contrasts starkly with her hovering mother’s reserve. Ursula Bedah, who lives nearby, seems reluctant to leave even though Nicole’s cousins are milling about. She takes small comfort in the fact that this happy mob contains dozens of camp staffers and almost 50 seasoned coaches—former pro linebackers, not least among them.
As a cornerstone of camp, football maintains an important presence here. It was 1996 when the NFL Players Association and the Nick Lowery Charitable Foundation joined forces with the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health (CAIH) to mobilize professional athlete mentors in a youth development initiative they dubbed NativeVision. This annual summer camp, led by Bloomberg School experts and to date attended by 9,500 kids, is its flagship. In addition, NativeVision now offers year-round programs in a number of tribal communities. In 17 years, it has served more than 25,000 Native Americans, according to CAIH deputy director Allison Barlow, MPH ’97, co-founder of the camp along with former NFL players Clark Gaines and Nick Lowery.
“NativeVision is magic. It springs from each person giving all they have of raw talents, passion and life story,” Barlow says. “At camp, a thousand lives and a million details get sorted into a simple daily routine of working side by side in a common rhythm toward shared well-being; toward the goal that Native children will gain a vision for who they are and what they will achieve.”
It costs the kids nothing to come to camp. NativeVision has a diverse funding stream to cover its annual $250,000 cost but relies heavily on an annual gala that this year will be held November 22 at the Italian embassy in Washington, D.C.
“This NativeVision is a big thing,” Ursula Bedah marvels, eyeing the hundreds of campers, most of whom appear athletically intimidating compared to her wispy, glasses-wearing daughter. She’s impressed but fretting about whether Nicole will be safe for a few hours—will be here when she returns at 4:30 to pick her up. No overnight camping for her girl!
An obvious irony seems lost on Bedah: Every summer when she was growing up, her parents deposited her and a few of her 10 siblings in the mountains nearby, leaving the kids to fend for themselves for months while shepherding the family’s goats and cows at the cooler elevations. Come fall, the family would regroup on the farm in time for school to start. Though Bedah’s mother had no formal education and spoke only Dine—the language of her people—she instilled in the children a love of learning. Bedah graduated from Shiprock High, went on to earn a college degree in education and today teaches language arts in this district—the second-largest in the country serving Native American students. “I am glad,” she says, “I was raised the way I was.”
Escaping her mother’s nostalgia, Nicole threads through a throng of teens and joins dozens of girls with like-colored wristbands. At the center of that swarm is first-year NativeVision volunteer Janine Tucker, head coach of Johns Hopkins women’s lacrosse. Already latched tightly onto Tucker, 8-year-old Kalani Williams reveals that she used to play softball.
“Did you like it?” Tucker asks.
“No,” Kalani confides. “They say the ball is soft, but it isn’t.”
Like so many of the kids here, Kalani wants someone to trust, no matter what sport they happen to teach. And, like all the coaches leading clinics, Tucker’s main mission over these next few days isn’t honing any one particular athletic skill set; it’s building relationships, one-on-one.
RUNNING INTO JERROD
Sunday, June 2 / Day 1
Hundreds of kids are packed onto the bleachers in the Pit, fanning themselves throughout the sweltering welcoming ceremony. Lenes Hopkins-Chery notices someone pointing at him. He can’t quite make out the face, but senses a familiar energy—a memorable presence—and suddenly recognizes exactly who it is: “Oh yeah! That’s Jerrod!”Two years ago at NativeVision, Hopkins-Chery first noticed Jerrod Noble, a 15-year-old Navajo who, given a couple years of maturation and training, would be a valuable asset to any university track team.
“His strides,” Hopkins-Chery recalls, “were amazing … I mean, just smooth.”
A straight-A student athlete, Jerrod stood out not only for his natural sprinting ability but also for the intelligent questions he asked about track and field, a sport largely foreign to him. All he knew about running was that he was good at it—as in, always the fastest kid at school. Golf was his main sport, however. His grandfather had taught him that. Jerrod also played basketball, mainly because everyone else did; his own mother had been a hoops standout when she was a student.
“Play golf,” conceded Hopkins-Chery, a former runner for Park University in Parkville, Missouri, and now a manager for an international trading company. “But you should be running as well.”
Hopkins-Chery no sooner arrived back home in Kansas City after NativeVision 2011 when Jerrod texted him: “Hey Coach, what do I do to get better?”
Hopkins-Chery sent him weight-training workouts that featured lots of reps, especially leg curls.
“I didn’t know then that hamstrings were important for sprinting,” Jerrod says.
The coach advised him about diet, suggesting he drink potassium-rich coconut water to help him recover quicker after a run in the desert heat.
“He told me to work out in the mornings,” Jerrod says, “which, you know, it was just awful for me to get up. He told me to take a morning jog, and during it, to enjoy nature, and my whole town; to just enjoy living.”
A sunrise run, Hopkins-Chery persuaded Jerrod, should be nothing short of sacred; a teaching wholly aligned with traditional Native American culture.
“The spiritual part,” the coach explained, “is that with every step that you take, you’re breathing in what the earth has given you, and then releasing positive energy back to the earth.”
“I want to give back to my community. I want to make them proud about what I do, how hard I want to work for them." —Jerrod Noble
Blessings come back three-fold to those who respect the world around them, according to Hopkins-Chery. He revealed to Jerrod that while running, he intentionally breathes for somebody who struggles to breathe naturally: someone using an oxygen tank or confined to bed. He admitted that early in his career, he ran for himself; to better his own times. Then, when his mother became sick, he began to understand how he could bless somebody else when he ran: “I ran for my mom every day,” he told Jerrod. “I ran hard. I ran strong. I ran until I was exhausted.”
He ran until he had no breath left. Then, he logged another five miles. His mother’s health improved. “And I thought, ‘Mom, you just don’t know… I just ran 20 miles for you today! I ran for you because you aren’t able to do it,’” Hopkins-Chery said.
Jerrod is a quick and eager learner. Hopkins-Chery notices that this year he looks more relaxed when he runs; like he’s running for something beyond himself.
“I want to give back to my community,” Jerrod confirms. “I want to make them proud about what I do, how hard I want to work for them.”
As much as Hopkins-Chery hopes Jerrod might head to Park University and run for his alma mater, he holds another dream even dearer: “I told Jerrod yesterday that I cannot wait for his first year of college to be over; then he’s going to come back [to NativeVision] and be a coach. It’s going to be amazing.”
RODNEY STEPS UP
Monday, June 3 / Day 2
With five sports—basketball, football, track, volleyball and lacrosse—going on at once, and compressed into a frenetic few days, NativeVision seems at times to be a sprint and an endurance contest. Mercifully, a number of breathers are interspersed among the clinics. Longtime NativeVision basketball coaches Nadine Caron and Joe Meriweather look forward to these scheduled small-group chats for the chance to lift campers up and expand their perspectives beyond life on the Rez.
Meriweather, a fatherless black kid-turned-NBA-star, and Caron, a Native American surgeon in British Columbia, stand in front of their group, poised to talk candidly about the adversity they have faced, and reveal how they—to this day—apply lessons learned on the court to life’s challenges.
That’s when Rodney Dazen steps up.
A shy 17-year-old Apache wearing electric-blue Nikes, he had attended camp the year before and heard these same coaches deliver inspiration and encouragement. Their heartfelt messages made an impression, he says, ultimately saving his life. Now, he has a story he wants to share with his fellow campers. Meriweather and Caron step aside.
Rodney tells his teammates that this time last year, he was sitting where they are when the coaches asked everyone to share a goal they had for the coming year: “What are you going to accomplish until we see you again?” Lots of kids talked about improving their shooting or making a varsity team. Rodney’s answer: “I want to try to finish school.” It had elicited from the coaches a passionate and startling response; something along the lines of: “NO! NO! NO! You’re going to try?! NO! Something that important, that fundamental, is non-negotiable; there’s no room for trying. You just do it!”
The message Rodney got from friends and relatives was that they expected him to drop out. “I never heard anyone tell me that they believed in me to get this far in high school, or to get a college education,” he says.
Until he attended NativeVision, he didn’t have any role models, Rodney says. He never saw people from his Rez going off to college and graduating. If they did go, they’d come back a month or so later, he noticed.
Then, last June at NativeVision camp, he met Coach Caron of the Ojibway Tribe, First Nation. The former basketball standout at Simon Fraser University had finished at the top of her class in 1997 to become the University of British Columbia’s first woman aboriginal medical school graduate. Her success—in the face of challenges that he now realized were not unique to him—had a powerful effect on him, Rodney says. Suddenly, he knew in whose footsteps he wanted to follow. When all the other kids swarmed the college coaches and former pro players to sign their camp shirts, he approached Caron and asked her to autograph his beloved blue athletic shoes.
“I would never let Michael Jordan sign these over you,” he told her, “because I’ve never seen a Native American go farther than you have.”
The quote that Caron scrawled on his shoe—Do or Do Not, There is No Try—ultimately saved his life, he says. It had been a very tough year. He was sick, and sinking dangerously low. At a desperate moment, he noticed Caron’s handwritten message on his shoe. It empowered him to not give up, he says: “The sickness brought me down, but I didn’t let it take me down forever.”
Tears in her eyes, Caron softly interjects, “You said you were going to try to finish high school. Where are you now?”
“And you’re looking forward to it?”
“Yes, I am.”
Monday, June 3 / Day 2
“Finish! It’s all about finishing,” Ron Pritchard yells across the expanse of turf, an anomaly of green in an otherwise parched landscape.
The kid did everything right—almost. He plowed his way in, created space and made an interception, but in the end, neglected to yell “DEVIL!”
“You want to alert your teammates that you’ve caught the ball, so they know they have to make a transition now from defense, right Dominique?”
Seventeen-year-old Dominique Yazzie limps back into line, eager to have another chance at perfecting this dig-and-drift zone technique. His impaired gait concerns Pritchard, a former NFL linebacker who now coaches at a private school in Scottsdale, Arizona.
When the guys break for lunch, he finds Dominique to ask what’s going on: “Where are you hurt at Dom?”
Squinting up at coach, Dominique says: “In my groin.”
“I would rather have a calf pull or a tear in my thigh,” Pritchard says, “because when the groin is torn, it’s very, very sore, and hard to heal.”
Dominique admits he’s not sought any treatment yet.
“If I were you,” Pritchard says, “I wouldn’t play in the game today. How do you feel about that? Or do you feel like you must play?”
Dominique nods. His habit is to play through pain: “I love the game, and want to help my teammates out.”
“Typical warrior,” Pritchard responds. “Absolutely typical. The highest-level athletes think the same way. They feel responsible not only for themselves but their teammates. That’s the scary part, because some injuries you can’t play through.”
Pritchard bides his time before putting his foot down, before insisting that safety come first. He wants Dominique to assume responsibility for taking care of his own body.
“I’m telling you,” he says. “If you play it would be a foolish thing. You could put your senior season in jeopardy.”
Dominique appears convinced. Some-what. Pritchard asks if he plans to play after high school, and Dominique says he likes Oregon, adding that he’d need a scholarship to go play for the Ducks.
“Are your grades good? What’s your GPA? Anytime we can get a guy who can play football and also have the desire to develop academically, that’s the best match,” Pritchard says. “That’s the perfect storm.”
Stanford football alum and former NFL linebacker John Olenchalk—a NativeVision coach since 1997—declares the break over and sends the guys back out from the sidelines for more drills before a long-awaited scrimmage.
Pritchard puts a hand on Dominique’s shoulder: “With your speed, and how you cut, you could rip that groin in half and you may never get over that one. Honestly. So you got to think a little bit in the future.”
A four-year veteran of NativeVision, Pritchard describes these guys as his “three-day family.” In their short time together, he seizes opportunities to dig deep and reach these kids’ hearts and souls. If he can do that, he knows they are going to trust him. And with trust, miracles can happen. He’s seen them happen—in these kids’ lives as well as in his own.
Still sensing that Dom is teetering, Pritchard poses a rhetorical question: “Are you coachable? Yes you are. So you’re not playing today. How ‘bout that?”
“Sounds good to me,” Dominique agrees.
Now it’s Pritchard who needs convincing: “You trust me?”
“Yes, sir. I do.”
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR
Tuesday, June 4 / Day 3
When they first met, 11-year-old Alaira Kisto of Gila River, Arizona, told Janine Tucker that she likes basketball best—all the camp kids are crazy about basketball—but wanted to try something new.
Tucker offered an enthusiastic high-five for that.
Now, three days later, as campers drag sleeping bags and backpacks into buses and vans for the trip home, Tucker finds Alaira and pulls her aside.
“You seem very interested in learning and growing and pushing and challenging yourself,” Tucker begins. “You were very kind to the younger girls and very respectful to the older girls.
“I brought something special with me that I want to give to you because all of those qualities are so important as you go through life.”
Tucker presents the girl with a treasure from Johns Hopkins Women’s Lacrosse: a Blue Jay team stick.
“I want you to break it in just like you did your NativeVision stick and make it your own. This is for you,” she says.
A glaring midday sun notwithstanding, Alaira beams.
Tucker expects to see Alaira back at NativeVision Camp next year, she says, adding she can’t wait to see how good she’ll be then at the stick tricks they practiced so hard these past few days. “I think that you’re going to go really far,” the coach confides.
“I’m going to finish my school and then go on to college,” Alaira insists.
“That’s my girl,” Tucker says. “That’s what I want to hear. I’m going to keep my eye on you.”