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Health coalition annual pow wow grows thanks to volunteers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Four years ago, members of the Native American Health Coalition saw the need to bring the Native American population in Kansas City together. Three pow wows and thousands of volunteer hours later, the pow wow is growing stronger and larger each year.

Shirley Hopkins, executive director of the coalition, said she's proud of how a simple idea has grown and of the people who selflessly dedicated hours, without pay, to make it work. "We started three years ago ... getting the Indian people here in the urban population together.

"The original intent was for unity. We are so diverse and we aren't on the reservation and we needed unity. At first we couldn't get people to come. Now they are coming out of the woodwork. Our original intent has been met."

The urban population in the Kansas City Metro area is estimated at around 10,000 by the coalition. Hopkins said that the problem was that there just wasn't a celebration which included all tribes until the NAHC pow wow began.

This year dancers and vendors came from as far away as North Carolina, Wisconsin, Arizona and New Mexico. Many came from the surrounding states and 11 drum groups from various areas throughout the country were represented.

"This year we had over three hundred dancers," Hopkins said. "It gets bigger every year."

Hopkins said that the money to put on the pow wow is the result of hours of fund-raising by volunteers.

The Renaissance Festival was just one opportunity volunteers found to raise funds. The festival runs for seven consecutive weekends just outside of Kansas City, bringing thousands of spectators. NAHC volunteers set up a booth and fixed a festival favorite - turkey legs. "We cooked a million turkey legs," Hopkins said, with a laugh. "So it shows that we don't just take donations, we go out and work to raise money."

Last year the group braved heat indices of 116 degrees selling food at the Cherokee National Holiday in Tahlequah, Okla.

But the coalition is more than a group that raises money and holds an annual pow wow. It provides health care for Native Americans in the Kansas City area.

"We started out in an office five years ago with a desk and a chair," Hopkins said. It now boasts 10 full-time employees, a part-time doctor, a model substance abuse program and the only HIV outreach counselor in the Midwest.

With large numbers of Native Americans living in urban areas, the coalition strives to help those who couldn't afford health care without its assistance.

Hopkins said the coalition does whatever it can to help Native American people. "We have a free clinic, HIV cultural counseling, a Christmas store that serviced 400 children last year, scholarships, tutoring, ... ," Hopkins said.

The coalition that started on a shoestring budget still struggles to make ends meet, but Hopkins is grateful that it is able to keep giving assistance to those who need it.

Plans for next year's pow wow, are under way. Hopkins has been in contact with entertainers and promises an even bigger pow wow for 2001.

Those interested in volunteering or just want more information on the Native American Health Coalition can contact the Kansas City office at (816) 333-7500.