Wednesday, November 11, 2009

All you need is love

There’s a lot of talk this year about budget constraints and the squeeze on grant-funded research and health improvement projects.

Luckily, the Native Health Initiative doesn’t rely on dollars to improve the health of American Indians.

“What is our funding source? It’s love,” said Shannon Fleg during an informal initiative meeting in the convention center yesterday. “It’s a human-to-human element of wanting to serve others.”

Founded in 2004, the initiative is “a partnership to address health inequities through loving service.” It began in North Carolina and now has sites in New Mexico, California, Minnesota and Arizona. Some projects include grants to help young American Indians carry out community improvement efforts as well as a cultural approach to tobacco education, prevention and cessation called “Decolonize Tobacco — Breathe Tradition, Not Addiction.” Tribal communities have hosted college student interns for five consecutive summers to work on tribal community health projects.

It’s one of those miraculous projects where the interns and volunteers take away as much as the community members they are “helping.” It’s a cultural exchange and just a way of “going back to the ways our people already know,” Shannon said.

“A lot gets done when no one cares who gets the credit,” said Shannon’s husband and group-co-founder Anthony Fleg, a primary care physician in New Mexico. “We’re a partnership — a linking entity.”

The initiative is important because of the significant health disparities so painfully prevalent in many American Indian communities, not to mention the lack of exposure for many health professions students to American Indian communities and issues. There’s also been long-standing under-representation of American Indians in the health professions, untapped resources in the communities themselves, and a lack of effective partnerships between universities and communities to improve health.

“The best solutions for improving the health of communities will always come from the communities themselves,” Anthony said.

At this point in the meeting, this blogger raced back to grab her camera out of the press office, as Shannon said some the tribal elders might show up.

They didn’t, but I did meet the Fleg’s 15-month-old daughter Nizhoni, a name that means “beautiful” in Navajo, who is a delightful little child who acts like she’s never met a stranger. She smiled easily for me and grasped my hand like an old friend, even offering me a bite of her pretzel. May we all be so warm and welcoming to our fellow humans.

— D.C.

Above: Nizhoni Fleg, the youngest member of the Native Health Initiative (she really is a member), illustrates some loving kindness.

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