“You say Wings of America to anyone in the running community—it’s synonymous with the best Native American runners,” said Eric Heins, the cross-country and distance coach at Northern Arizona University, a program that has benefited from having Wings runners in recent years.
American Indians have especially high rates of youth suicide, Type 2 diabetes and deaths attributed to alcoholism, and extreme poverty is pervasive on many reservations. Wings of America, a 20-year-old nonprofit organization based here, has embraced the challenge.
“The hardest part is getting people to understand, to make the case how important it is,” said Anne Wheelock Gonzales, the organization’s former executive director who now serves as a consultant. “One time someone said, ‘Well, it’s not like you’re saving lives.’ And I said: ‘Excuse me, we are saving lives. That’s exactly what this does.’ ”