I don't know anyone who has traveled virtually anywhere in the world that hasn't come home to the Roaring Fork Valley with a sense of awe and wonder that we actually get to live here. All it takes is a flight into Sardy Field, or the drive through Glenwood Canyon or over Independence Pass as we drop into town, to remind us ... we are "home."
Getting out of town to visit anywhere else is, in fact, a great reminder of how blessed we truly are. Last month I traveled with a group from Snowmass Chapel to the White Mountain Apache Reservation near Show Low, Ariz., for a service trip. The landscape reminded me of the midvalley: think Emma or parts of the Frying Pan Valley. The mountainous scenery, pinon trees, caverns and canyons are spectacular, to be sure. But any type of comparison would abruptly - sadly - end there.
Published statistics from a variety of sources are grim. The White Mountain Apache suicide rate is at least 13 times higher than the national average, making it the highest in the world. Most of the suicides are young people under the age of 25.
Methamphetamine abuse is through the roof. Forty to 60 percent of folks on the reservation are alcohol dependent, and there is a 50 percent homeless rate. This latter number is hidden because so many people cram into subsistence housing.
Poverty is off the charts and paradoxically so is obesity. Unemployment is 61 percent. Nearly 50 percent of all Apache residents are under the age of 19, and only 15 percent of them will graduate high school. A mere 1.3 percent will attend college. Needless to say, it is a tough place to grow up for many.
Native American children are more likely to be abused, see their mothers being abused and live in a household where someone is controlled by drugs or alcohol. They have the highest rates of emotional and physical neglect and are more likely to be exposed to trauma.
I mention these statistics not gratuitously, or as a scare tactic. I mention it because you and I have within our power the ability to make a change. Make no mistake, it is a frustrating, daunting, overwhelming cultural divide. Despite their proximity to education, health care and human services, Native Americans in general don't often accept help and rarely reach out. But our power to change lives exists. It is quite simply by caring.
Author and teacher Leo Buscaglia said, "Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around."
We might not be able to change the generational challenges of the American Indian people, but we can most certainly offer our heartfelt prayers, kind action and hugs.
One of the things we did during our week on the reservation was head out on the Big Blue Bus every afternoon. Yes, the bus is literally blue. This bus ministry has been running for at least 15 years, so when the children on the Reservation see it coming, they come running.
Our job on the bus was to share the "three P's": prayer, praise and play. The idea is to engage the children in prayer, some worship and a lot of playtime with no other objective than having fun (something in short supply on the "Rez"). Our very first afternoon I was sharing a story, sitting in a circle on the ground with 40 children, surrounded by weeds and wandering dogs, and a few homes that had burnt to the ground. I started by asking the children, "What is the biggest present you ever received?"
Without hesitation the kids answered, "God." "Life." "My brother." "My baby sister." "Love!" "Jesus." "The beautiful mountains."
I was flabbergasted. Ask any group of 6, 7 and 8 year-old Roaring Fork Valley kids and I would guess the answer to be a bit more materialistic. In fact, I was expecting it - I had to change the story a bit because they had already jumped to the end of the lesson!
Throughout the week, all around the small areas we visited on the Rez, the children's answers were the same. They had not been coached to answer this way. Instead, life had taught them a critical truth for all of us to understand, embrace and live by. Isn't it ironic that the ones who on the surface have the least, seemingly understand the most? And not once during our time with the children did we hear a complaint. This doesn't mean they don't complain (they are kids after all!), but we didn't hear it.
Who we are, how we live, and how we approach each day depends not only on where we invest our energy but how we choose to see things. Surrounded by the dilapidated homes, abandoned appliances, furniture and cars, the trash, graffiti, the forlorn-looking animals - it was easy to wonder if we were making any difference whatsoever. But then I saw these beautiful little faces with their shy smiles, chasing us, playing basketball and jump-rope and Rez ball with us, asking for piggy-back rides and hugs, and I know we did.
Never underestimate your power.
Charla Belinski is the director of youth and family programs at Snowmass Chapel, and has spent the past 12 years as a parenting instructor, parent coach, and writer. She also serves on the Aspen School District's Board of Education. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org