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Self-esteem tops the charts of women’s health issues

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Ask Dr. Dee Ann DeRoin what the most pressing health issue is among Native women and you may be a bit surprised by her response. It isn’t heart disease, substance abuse or even diabetes.

“The single greatest issue is self-esteem,” DeRoin said. “People need to love themselves so they can transfer that love.”

DeRoin said poor self-esteem manifests in the lives of young Native women in many ways, including depression, substance abuse, unplanned pregnancy and STDs.

A member of the Ioway Tribe of Kansas, DeRoin was among nine women named as “2008 Women Who Make a Difference” at the International Women’s Forum World Leadership Conference held in Pittsburgh Oct. 17. DeRoin was recognized as “a true champion to an under-served community, who has helped increase health prospects for girls and women in the Native American community.”

DeRoin is a member of the Kansas Forum and was nominated by her peers. A medical doctor, consultant, advocate and implementer of community health programs for American Indians, DeRoin was a founding member and first president of the Four Tribes Women’s Wellness Coalition in Kansas.

One woman builds the esteem of many
Maya Torralba is as passionate about her hometown as she is about her newfound cause – building healthy self-esteem in young American Indian women. Hoping to change the way young women in Anadarko, Okla., feel about themselves and their community, Torralba launched the Community Esteem Project in December as a way for women to take pride in their heritage and community, gain self-esteem and become leaders. The group held its first meeting Dec. 18 at the Anadarko Indian Education Building. Torralba said the first meeting included 11 American Indian female students from middle school to high school in the Anadarko Public School District. “It went very well. The girls are very excited. You could see them sitting up a little higher.” Students will be meeting weekly to work through the “True You!” self-esteem curriculum developed by Dove. The young ladies will also receive mentorship, work on traditional regalia and begin a positive relationship with the community of Anadarko. Some upcoming projects include making gifts for the residents of Silvercrest at Deercreek retirement community and constructing an eco-friendly straw bale house. The Community Esteem Project began as a blueprint that Torralba designed while serving as a 2008 Fellow with the Young People For program. The project will be an ongoing process with students recruiting and mentoring younger students. The group is in the process of obtaining nonprofit status. “This program is not a side project for me,” Torralba said. “It is my passion.” Torralba is a senior political science major at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. An enrolled Kiowa tribal member, Torralba works for the Anadarko Indian Education Program and is a grant coordinator for the Kiowa Tribe. She described her own teen years as troubled. Her mother died when she was 15 and it took her five years to graduate high school. “I didn’t have the mother figure there.” In her work as a student tutor, Torralba said she’s witnessed the connection between self-esteem and academic performance. “They come to school not wanting to try.” Torralba said Anadarko is feeling the strains of the economic recession. “The town reflects how the kids feel about themselves,” she said. “It reflects their academics.” American Indians make up the majority of the population in Anadarko. Seven tribes are represented in the area, including Kiowa, Comanche, and the Apache of Oklahoma. “It’s such a unique town,” Torralba said. “I’ve seen women in my family destroyed by poor self-esteem, and they had so much to offer,” she said. “I don’t want to see that happen to any more people.” What Torralba would like to see is students from the Community Esteem Project come back to be leaders in Anadarko. Today at 30, Torralba is the mother of three and believes she has found her life’s work. “As Native women we are so strong. We need to embrace that.” The Anadarko Community Esteem Project is included on the service event link on the Presidential Inaugural Committee Web site. The program is seeking volunteers and donations of fabric, shawl fringe, beads, as well as gardening and construction tools. For more information, contact Maya Torralba at (405) 933-2140 or e-mail her at

Her work as a community health consultant includes a screening project to increase colorectal cancer awareness and screening in 10 rural, reservation and urban communities. She works with states, tribes and American Indian organizations in the areas of diabetes, cancer, HIV and cultural competence.

“Mostly I do education,” she said. “It’s really fun to do health education and have someone have an ‘aha!’ moment.”

DeRoin grew up in the rural Nebraska town of Wymore, the youngest of five children. Though she was a bright child, DeRoin was a bored underachiever in school. Her father died before her first birthday, leaving her mother to struggle to support her family, first as a grocery checker, then as a bank teller.

Though DeRoin’s mother had only a ninth-grade education herself, she instilled the importance of an education in her daughter. “This will not happen to you,” her mother would say. “You are going to have an education.”

When she was in junior high school, DeRoin’s family moved to California. After graduating from high school, she worked her way through college by holding three part-time jobs. DeRoin earned a Master’s Degree in public health at Berkeley. She earned her medical degree at Stanford University.

“I knew I wanted to do Indian health,” she said.

In 1982, DeRoin moved to Lawrence where she served as a physician and clinical director at Haskell Indian Health Center. Though she has experienced the frustrations of working with inadequate funding and limited resources, DeRoin remains a strong supporter of IHS. “IHS is very important,” she said.

Poverty in Indian country is still a big issue for Indian health, DeRoin said, affecting everything from self-esteem to nutrition and how people shop. “One of the saddest examples is [soda] pop,” she said, noting that a gallon of milk is more expensive.

DeRoin said the national epidemic in obesity over the past 15 to 20 years is happening to a greater degree in the Indian community. She blames inactivity, saying too much time is spent in front of computers and televisions. Television has not only had a big impact on health but also on the quality of social and family life. “Families are not having family supper together.”

DeRoin said she raised her two children without television and that her family has not had a television set in 30 years.

According to her, one of the simplest ways to begin taking responsibility for one’s health is to get moving. “I always try to tell people that movement is magic. Our bodies were intended to move.”

As for her health, DeRoin walks two-and-one-half miles a day and keeps an eye on her blood sugar.

In addition to increased funding for IHS, DeRoin sees a need for more health education and prevention and more resources to deal with mental health issues in Indian country, such as depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder.

“We can’t generalize about tribes and tribal people,” DeRoin said. But as a Native person, she said she feels more in tune to some of the customs and unwritten rules of communication in Indian country, such as taking the time to listen.

She said the most gratifying part of her work is getting to know whole families.

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at