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Taking the right path

DAVENPORT, Okla. – When Whitney Wayland was a student at Davenport Public Schools, she and other Indian kids started a running club. They were inspired after attending a health fair and learning how proper diet and physical activity can fight diabetes.

Now a collegiate rugby player at the University of Oklahoma, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma citizen credits the diabetes prevention initiative, MOVE It!, with putting her on a path that shifted her life.

“That was eye-opening,” the 20-year-old college junior said. “It made me want to help people with the way diabetes is affecting Native Americans.”

Wayland now majors in kinesiology, which deals with the interrelationship of body processes and anatomy in regards to movement. She credits her diabetes prevention involvement in high school forging her major choice.

The rural Lincoln County school she attended is around 30 percent American Indian.

Wayland’s running club memories came back to her after a national mail out of MOVE It! kits in mid-July. The kits, complete with statistical and practical information, went to schools with high Indian enrollment numbers to stimulate local diabetes prevention.

“I remember making diabetes posters and putting them up and having a diabetes extravaganza where the whole community got involved.”

Regina Riley, Indian education coordinator for Davenport Public Schools, said the school district has children from homes where food commodities are the sole source of nutrition. Subsequently, children from Indian homes were not in the best physical shape.

“I remember that year, we were having trouble with kids. ... falling asleep in class and being overweight.”

A sedentary schedule and poor diet are often the easiest culprits in the nation’s fastest rising incidence of Type 2 diabetes, experts say.

“So, the thing we concentrated on first was portion size, to make them smaller,” Riley said.

National statistics show that American Indian children (birth to 18) have the highest incidence level of Type 2 diabetes than any other minority group, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In Davenport, the local school administration helped the school’s Indian education program map a plan for “moving it,” Riley said. Doing diabetes prevention was a natural step.

The kids’ running achievements soon added up, with the students entering local track meets and setting goals for physical and academic achievement.

The success of the program was the buy-in of the community, Riley said.

Plus, it sometimes takes initiative, said Michael Clark at the Menominee BIA Indian School in Neopit, Wisc. Trimming excess is one way to kick start healthier choices for Indian youth.

“We took the soda machines about five years ago. And our cooks are offering healthy meals and including a salad bar.”

In Davenport, Riley said the MOVE It! program has spawned leadership qualities in students that have translated into full scholarships at local universities. She said the schools’ participation in the program seems to earn confidence from scholarship committees who see the merit in the MOVE It! prevention plan.

The MOVE It! diabetes prevention kits have fact sheets, culturally specific books on diabetes, plus a how-to plan to promote disease awareness for Indian children.

Meanwhile, diabetes prevention takes a slightly different slant in the urban setting. With more than 1.1 million of all the nation’s Indians living in cities, the urban life pattern is more complicated. Obstacles can be as simple as climate, said one diabetes prevention educator.

Cheryle Litzin of Native Health in Phoenix, said the hotter climate in her region keeps many Indian children inside, which makes exercise a rarity, unlike rural Indian children who can usually open a screen door and play in open spaces.

Litzin recently coordinated a diabetes prevention camp aimed at children ages 9 to 12. The camp was downsized from 80 kids in 2008 to 45 kids this year. Money and the tight economy provided a different kind of stumbling block. Lack of funding prompted camp organizers to ask for a $50 per child fee for a camp that had previously been free.

But the week-long camp carried an impact that went beyond dollars, Litzin said.

“We got e-mails from parents who said their kids came home and knew the difference between what was healthy eating versus unhealthy. It changes lives.”

Indian youth got a shot at rock climbing, paintball, canoeing and horseback riding. They also learned how to make healthy snacks, which came in handy since candy, soda and junk food were off limits.

Diabetes prevention faces special hurdles in urban settings because negative social influences abound compared to rural Indians who numbered more than 800,000 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census.

Specifically, reservation life stresses a cultural influence that results in a more traditional lifestyle, as opposed to urban living, where everyday life is more stressful and less traditional. Existence for city Indian kids usually means both parents work, with family time a luxury.

“In the cities, basic survival is a priority,” Litzin said. “We want our Indian youth to live longer and so do they.”