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Stride, Soar, SucceedMaryalice Yakutchik

Stride Soar Succeed (continued)

Among the return campers arriving today: Robyn Soriano of Gila River, Arizona. The 17-year-old—her hair tinged with henna and her tank top proclaiming, “I STAND FOR MY REZ”—has attended for the past three years. This time, she’s convinced her 10-year-old sister Nikki to tag along. With other nonlocals, the two will camp out in tents on Shiprock High’s front lawn after spending their days on the back fields, playing lacrosse—one of the camp’s five sports. As the camp motto suggests, maybe they’ll be inspired at some point to “stride, soar, succeed”—and not just in their chosen sport (indicated by a color-coded wristband).

Like the Soriano sisters, 8-year-old Nicole Martin wears a green wristband. And like them, she is trying a game that’s foreign to her. By dinnertime, she’ll announce to everyone packed in the cafeteria: “I love lacrosse as much as I love my puppy!” 

Nicole’s animated and incessant chatter contrasts starkly with her hovering mother’s reserve. Ursula Bedah, who lives nearby, seems reluctant to leave even though Nicole’s cousins are milling about. She takes small comfort in the fact that this happy mob contains dozens of camp staffers and almost 50 seasoned coaches—former pro linebackers, not least among them. 

As a cornerstone of camp, football maintains an important presence here. It was 1996 when the NFL Players Association and the Nick Lowery Charitable Foundation joined forces with the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health (CAIH) to mobilize professional athlete mentors in a youth development initiative they dubbed NativeVision. This annual summer camp, led by Bloomberg School experts and to date attended by 9,500 kids, is its flagship. In addition, NativeVision now offers year-round programs in a number of tribal communities. In 17 years, it has served more than 25,000 Native Americans, according to CAIH deputy director Allison Barlow, MPH ’97, co-founder of the camp along with former NFL players Clark Gaines and Nick Lowery. 

“NativeVision is magic. It springs from each person giving all they have of raw talents, passion and life story,” Barlow says. “At camp, a thousand lives and a million details get sorted into a simple daily routine of working side by side in a common rhythm toward shared well-being; toward the goal that Native children will gain a vision for who they are and what they will achieve.” 

It costs the kids nothing to come to camp. NativeVision has a diverse funding stream to cover its annual $250,000 cost but relies heavily on an annual gala that this year will be held November 22 at the Italian embassy in Washington, D.C. 

“This NativeVision is a big thing,” Ursula Bedah marvels, eyeing the hundreds of campers, most of whom appear athletically intimidating compared to her wispy, glasses-wearing daughter. She’s impressed but fretting about whether Nicole will be safe for a few hours—will be here when she returns at 4:30 to pick her up. No overnight camping for her girl! 

An obvious irony seems lost on Bedah: Every summer when she was growing up, her parents deposited her and a few of her 10 siblings in the mountains nearby, leaving the kids to fend for themselves for months while shepherding the family’s goats and cows at the cooler elevations. Come fall, the family would regroup on the farm in time for school to start. Though Bedah’s mother had no formal education and spoke only Dine—the language of her people—she instilled in the children a love of learning. Bedah graduated from Shiprock High, went on to earn a college degree in education and today teaches language arts in this district—the second-largest in the country serving Native American students. “I am glad,” she says, “I was raised the way I was.” 

Escaping her mother’s nostalgia, Nicole threads through a throng of teens and joins dozens of girls with like-colored wristbands. At the center of that swarm is first-year NativeVision volunteer Janine Tucker, head coach of Johns Hopkins women’s lacrosse. Already latched tightly onto Tucker, 8-year-old Kalani Williams reveals that she used to play softball. 

“Did you like it?” Tucker asks. 

“No,” Kalani confides. “They say the ball is soft, but it isn’t.” 

Like so many of the kids here, Kalani wants someone to trust, no matter what sport they happen to teach. And, like all the coaches leading clinics, Tucker’s main mission over these next few days isn’t honing any one particular athletic skill set; it’s building relationships, one-on-one. 

“NativeVision is magic. It springs from each person giving all they have of raw talents, passion and life story.” —Allison Barlow 

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