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Changing Diabetic Lives, One Pair of Nikes at a Time

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The new millennium was dawning, but the American Indians in California’s Santa Clara Valley weren’t in the mood to celebrate anything. Diabetes had exacted such a toll on their community that those left unscathed believed it wouldn’t be long before they succumbed to the disease, too. Deeply concerned community members also feared a destructive cycle that would consume their children.

“They lived without hope,” says Ramin Naderi, director of Community Wellness and Outreach (CWO).

But now, hope is growing, thanks to some innovative thinking and the help of Nike.

CWO is a program affiliated with the Indian Health Center of Santa Clara Valley (IHC). Naderi conceived of CWO because he saw that Western medicine wasn’t working in American Indian communities. The CWO model is holistic, addressing the whole person—body, heart, mind and spirit—while looking for the root causes of illness, not just its symptoms.

“Our model deals with generational, historical trauma created by the loss of tribal land, culture, religion, tradition and food sources,” Naderi says. “This health-care model needs to be standardized in all Native communities across the nation.”

Naderi hit upon the CWO model in his last year of graduate school in 2002. While studying kinesiology—the principles of mechanics and anatomy in relation to human movement—he saw diabetes sufferers going blind, getting limbs amputated, undergoing dialysis and enduring kidney failure. Fitness and nutrition resources to combat the crisis didn’t exist in the Native community. So through a series of evolutions and community involvement CWO was established in 2003, with initial funding from the Indian Health Service (IHS).

The approach is working, at least as reflected by the success of CWO’s award-winning Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) for prediabetic Native American adults. Since it launched in 2004, 50 percent of those who have completed the program are no longer prediabetic, says Jan V. Chacon, CWO’s Diabetes Prevention Program manager. “It’s given the community new hope.”

Significantly, the DPP has received a grant to fund a youth program that includes purchasing that Nike Air Native Shoes for program participants. The shoes, designed especially for the wider feet of most Natives, are ordered during the first session of DPP’s intensive 17-week program for prediabetic adults. For most, it is their first good pair of walking shoes. “It’s a big deal,” Chacon says. “In our culture we gift to honor people. The Nike shoes are a tangible way of telling people we believe in them.”

The shoes level the playing field among participants by creating a sense of group belonging and acceptance, Chacon says. She points to the historical trauma created when people were moved and isolated on reservations. “Our social groups have deteriorated, so we need to re-create that feeling.”

The DPP is one of more than 300 Native diabetes programs in the U.S., and more than 75 in Canada that participate in Nike’s Air Native program, says Nike’s Native American Business Manager Sam McCracken, from the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux reservation in northeastern Montana. Like many Natives, McCracken has lost a family member to diabetes. When his mother died of complications of the disease 11 years ago, he remembers, “I hoped that other people wouldn’t have to feel the way I did that day. She meant the world to me.”

As his career rose from Nike’s distribution center in Beaverton, Oregon to business management in the Native American sector, McCracken decided to fight the diabetes crisis by promoting the pursuit of physical fitness and sports. He built relationships with the IHS Division of Diabetes Treatment and Prevention and the National Indian Health Board. When their study determined that more than 90 percent of Native men and women whose feet they scanned had a wider foot size than average, their team designed the Nike Air Native N7 shoe and introduced it September 2007.

Nike makes the Air Native available at wholesale to tribal diabetes programs who independently decide how best to leverage the shoes and “change lives” in the process, says McCracken. Participating health promotion and disease prevention programs have been invigorated by Nike’s latest design; called the Air Native Tempo, it debuts this month (introduced February 1 to participating tribal health entities, not to the public or at retail). “It’s a whole new look and aesthetic,” McCracken says.

The Air Native Tempo is not sold in retail outlets and is not part of Nike’s N7 retail line, though tribal health programs directly benefit from the Nike N7 Fund that makes awards product donations and grants to organizations that help Native and aboriginal youth through sports.

Chacon is sold. Her order is in to outfit two of CWO’s upcoming adult programs and one youth program.