As my feet hit the pavement mile after mile in Phoenix, Scottsdale and then Tempe, Arizona last month while running the P.F. Chang’s Rock and Roll Marathon, I thought of “T” and “G.” “T”, an 18-year-old Apache/African American woman, was raised in a foster home. Her wrists tell a sad tale, desecrated from years of cutting, a form of self-injury. “T” responded to years of bullying by getting into fights and landed in and out of juvenile jail.
“Girls threw trash at me and called me names,” she said when I last saw her. She appeared happy at a ceremony last year where she received a certificate for completing a unit toward obtaining a GED Her older foster brother sat in the audience grinning from ear to ear. They later posed for pictures. “T” let me take a photo of her arms when I promised not to reveal her name.
“G”, 25, Apache and father of two young children, is someone I’d never met. His face visible on a program sits on the desk of a co-worker. “G” committed suicide earlier this year. The program is from his funeral. My heart breaks as I read his obituary.
“He enjoyed playing the drums, fishing, hunting, firefighting and traditional singing.” The stories of “G” and “T” are not unique. There are countless others who are crying out for help but help may not be easily accessible.
“T” says she often sought counseling while in jail. When she’s not incarcerated, she must find a way to get to a mental health center, some 7 miles away from her home. Without reliable transportation, “T” goes without. It’s unknown whether “G” sought help. Either way, the mental health center was an hour’s drive from where he lived. Proper diagnosis of any mental disorders and treatment may have made a world of difference early in their young lives.
Thus the reason I dedicated 26.2 miles to Native youth. The longer I run, the more I push beyond what I believe I’m capable of.
Not just for the “T’s” and “G’s” but also for those who have overcome adversity and are doing amazingly well like Tyler Owens, 19, of the Gila River Indian Community and Nataannii Hatathlie, 19, Navajo. The two are Native youth leaders and college students, who were invited last November to take part in the White House Tribal Nations Conference and met President Barack Obama. Owens told him she wanted to be president just like him.
The night before the marathon, I listened to a speech by Rick Baker, the legendary cross-country coach at Hopi High School, who boasts a 24-year winning record of state championships. Baker spoke at a spaghetti dinner for Native runners about his legacy of inspiring young runners to dream and visualize victory. He talked about his own running career in the late 1970s at then Haskell Indian Junior College, now a university. “Trust your training,” he said. After 20 miles, months of training didn’t stop my legs from feeling like spaghetti.
My pain didn’t matter. I focused on the pain of others. As I ran, I prayed. I prayed for the many “T’s” and “G’s” who have hopes and dreams but have lost hope and no longer dream. Statistics on the National Indian Child Welfare Association website show American Indian children have the highest rates of poverty, suicide, mental health and alcohol use disorders.
Thanks to organizations like United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc. (UNITY) that offer life-changing programs, Native youth are empowered to overcome obstacles and take charge of their lives. When they are empowered, they learn to make a difference in the lives of their families and communities. Owens and Hatathlie serve as officers on the National UNITY Council, made up of a network of 137 Native youth councils in 35 states. I used the marathon to raise $10,000 for UNITY.
This was my second marathon in four years. The first time, I had no agenda. I simply wanted to join the ranks of family marathoners. It is fitting during the last two grueling miles of this race; two teenage nephews served as support runners for me and my sister Millie, who ran her first marathon.
“You can do it auntie. Come on. You can do it!” said Isaac Stiffaarm, 18. Those simple encouraging words gave me the lift I needed. After I crossed the finish line, four siblings, all White Mountain Apache, and all under the age of 15 greeted me with hugs. Their mother asked me to pose for a picture with them. Seeing their faces full of life were worth that last push to the finish line.
Months after I took the photo of “T” and her foster brother, her foster brother committed suicide. “T” took it hard but went on to earn her G.E.D. and is out of the juvenile justice system. She’s homeless and is now trying to run her own life marathon. “T” pledges to push beyond what she believes she’s capable of. It won’t be easy, but with the right interventions and encouraging words, young people like “T” will survive and persevere.