February 21, 2008

Wings of America saves lives

Running From DespairHunt, a high school junior and a resident of the Navajo Nation, was on a short training run for the national cross-country championships being held Saturday in San Diego. Her team, Wings of America, has risen to prominence with an unlikely collection of athletes. It is a group of American Indians from reservations around the country, and a Wings team has won a boys or a girls national title 20 times since first attending a championship meet in 1988.

“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.’ ”

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