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Begay: Fighting the battle against childhood obesity and diabetes

There’s a growing epidemic targeting our nation’s youth and adding further strain to the already maxed-out health care system. Nearly one-third of America’s kids are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, depression and a range of life-long health problems.

As a full-blooded Native American, I’ve seen how this epidemic disproportionally impacts Native youth. Nearly one-third of Native 2- to 5-year-olds are obese, twice the rate of the white population, while Type 2 diabetes rates among Native youth ages 15 to 19 soared 68 percent from 1994 to 2004. I am particularly concerned by a study showing that 61 percent of Pueblo children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or obese.

It’s time we do more to stop this epidemic and put an end to the costly societal and economic consequences. Drawing on my experiences and relationships as a professional golfer, I have a unique opportunity to make a difference – one youth and one Native community at a time.

Change starts early

A few years ago, I visited Native communities in New Mexico while taking time off from the PGA TOUR to recover from a back injury. I saw too many kids who were overweight and had no outlets for physical activities – no playgrounds, no youth athletics programs. In addition, they were snacking on soda and junk food.

In 2005, I started the Notah Begay III Foundation with the mission of getting Native kids active and engaged by promoting physical fitness, wellness and leadership development. Our goal is to understand what these kids need to become physically active and healthy and design programs around those needs.

We established a soccer program with the San Felipe Pueblo that’s grown to include nearly 160 youth, exposing them to challenging exercise for at least 150 minutes a week. These youth have learned to build and maintain their physical fitness year-round. The success of our program has laid the groundwork to bring the sport of soccer to other tribal communities.

We also established the Arrowhead Junior Golf Program, providing extensive summer golf programs to Native youth in New Mexico. The program includes a partnership to deliver golf instruction and equipment to students at To’hajiilee High School, a Navajo Nation community school.

And we’re listening, with the goal of creating a national youth health and wellness movement among tribal nations. We recently hosted several in-person and online town-hall meetings with Native youth to better understand what role obesity, diabetes and physical activity plays in their lives.

The youth told us they understand the importance of physical activity and recognize that exercise and healthy foods can prevent diabetes. However, nearly 70 percent said they were worried they’d get diabetes. Why? Because they lacked access to programs or couldn’t afford to join a program.

That’s our opportunity to make a difference.

It takes a community

Our youth can’t do it alone. Regardless of ethnicity or geography, preventing obesity and diabetes starts in our families and schools. It’s the responsibility of parents, policymakers, community leaders – and, yes, professional athletes – to make sure our youth have access to programming that promotes physical activity, health and wellness.

On Aug. 24, the Notah Begay III Foundation Challenge, featuring my close friends and fellow PGA TOUR players Tiger Woods, Camilo Villegas and Mike Weir, will raise money that will allow our programs to spread to even more Native youth. The challenge is made possible by the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians and the Oneida Indian Nation, two tribal nations donating time and resources to create a more promising future for our Native youth.

While the national statistics are daunting, the youth of the San Felipe Soccer Club and the Arrowhead Junior Golf Program are beginning to realize their potential to live a healthy and active lifestyle. It’s up to each of us to make sure all our youth have a similar choice and opportunity.

Editor’s note: Indian Country Today is a division of Four Directions Media, which is owned by Oneida Nation Enterprises, LLC.