Tori Wynecoop lost her passion for running competitively this year. The NCAA Division III cross country athlete for Illinois College wants to spend her time helping others.
In abandoning her scholarship, she’s leaving behind an opportunity many others would cherish. But perhaps if you were in her shoes you’d understand.
This past year, Wynecoop, a 21-year-old Spokane tribal member from Wellpinit, Washington was the victim of a sexual assault while on her Jacksonville, Illinois college campus. She’s now associated with what could be considered an epidemic: Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women of any other race, according a National Crime Victimization Survey.
Now, she’s leading the charge on her campus to change that. Wynecoop has formed the school’s first Sexual Assault Awareness Group, in addition to seeking opportunities to help people on a larger scale.
“I realized a lot of colleges in general don’t talk about the severity of sexual assaults on campuses,” she says. “So I started this support group for survivors and people that want to know more.”
Helping people has always been Wynecoop’s passion. Her humanitarian efforts have led her to conduct drinking water research in Fukushima, Japan, the site of a former a nuclear disaster. She’s volunteered her time to helping the homeless in New Orleans, San Francisco and Atlanta. And she feels that leading the awareness group, along with some of the remarkable experiences she’s been a part of, will contribute to her one day being to help her own people. She aspires to become a physician and work for her local Indian Health Service clinic in Wellpinit.
After she receives her biology degree next spring, Wynecoop plans to become a certified EMT in preparation for medical school – something she’s wanted to achieve since high school. From there, she hopes to work on a clinic on another reservation or in a rural setting, before returning home.
“I think I’ll go to another clinic where I’ll just learn from other people,” she says. “Once I feel confident, I’ll go back and help with our own IHS.”
Wynecoop already has valuable experience in assisting people. Last summer, she was one of six Illinois College students selected for former president Jimmy Carter and Khalaf Al Habtoor’s “Pathways to Peace” initiative, a “realistic attempt to find a solution for an ongoing conflict that affects the Middle East and the West,” according to the school’s website.
“We all had to come up with our own idea on how would we bring peace between Israel and Palestine,” Wynecoop says.
“Mine was through education,” Wynecoop says. “I didn’t necessarily take a side, but I chose to work with Palestinian education because it was easier to relate to their situation at that point. They were going through land grab and oppression. I coordinated the education and essentially I said in order to resolve peace, the people in their own community need to work on their own mental health and their own mental and physical stability to try to discuss peace with the Israelis.”
She created an outline on how the Palestinian education system could incorporate her curriculum, explaining the importance of having mental health included.
“When I looked at the research, a lot of them suffer from PTSD, anxiety and depression, so I wrote that they’re continually oppressed throughout the day,” she says. “They are being shown walls in front of them every day. If children can see this mental resistance in themselves, their mental health would become better and they would be able to focus and bring that [mentality] to discuss relations with the Israelis. It’s basically a longitudinal thing; everything is with peace.”
Because Wynecoop was brought to Tel Aviv, she was able to witness some of that oppression first-hand, she says.
“When I was there there were airstrikes between Gaza and the Israeli military,” she says. “It’s weird to be in the middle of this crisis and have none of it affect you because you’re not Israeli and you’re not Palestinian.
Wynecoop brought a new perspective on life back to the United States.
“I started to realize that there’s a lot in our country that we didn’t really speak about here [about their conflict],” she says. “In order to understand a situation, you have to go in there for yourself.”
She realized that life is about more than sports. As one of the few Native athletes to make it to the next level, she gave that up to take on a larger role.
She’s still running – some. “Now I kind of run whenever I want; how long I want. but I’m doing it because I want to, not because I’m forced to.”
Cary Rosenbaum (Colville) is a correspondent and columnist for Indian Country Today. Pitch him your story on Twitter: @CaryRosenbaum