by Caroline von Fluegge-Chen
When I was 23-years old, I took six weeks off before starting a new marketing job in Manhattan to ride my bicycle from Seattle to New York in an event called the “Coast to Coast Classic”. It took us eleven days to travel across Montana, a state which is both vast and beautiful. Along the way, my group camped behind a rundown school in a town by the name of Poplar. I had no reason to ever visit this remote part of the country again, or so I thought.
Seventeen years later, under completely different circumstances, I found myself going back to Poplar, Montana twice a year, once in the summer and then again around Christmas. It’s strange how the journey of life can lead a person in circuitous pathways. Little did I know that the families, especially the children, would become a very important part of my life and the purpose of Balance Atlanta.
It all started when my mentor, Dr. Kevin Pallis, decided that our coaching group should extend our vision of Healthier People = Healthier world to communities outside of those in which we practice.
Though humanitarian aid is needed in impoverished countries all over the world, we decided to focus our efforts on a third world crisis in the United States, namely the plight of the Native Americans. Our project is called Love Has No Color and it was created to bring hope, self-respect, and health to a group of people who are in dire need.
On the bike trip, I had no idea Poplar was on a reservation. The area simply looks like endless plains speckled with ramshackle houses and trailers spread over thousands of acres. Yes, the natural beauty is remarkable: a giant blue sky, grassy fields, fox, deer, herds of buffalo, the constant whistling of the wind, a few rivers snaking towards the horizon. However, beneath the surface, there is a very dark picture of what is going on within Native American communities all over the country. Here’s what is happening at the Fort Peck Reservation where Poplar is located:
– Five children committed suicide at the Poplar Middle School during the 2009-2010 school year and 20 more attempted to commit suicide.
– More than 1/3 of middle school students tested positive for sexually transmitted diseases.
– At least 1/5 of 5th graders drink alcohol weekly.
– 12% of high school girls are pregnant.
– The elementary school drop out rate is 40% and most kids don’t continue to high school.
– The unemployment rate is 70%.
– Jails are filled to capacity, especially in winter, because it’s the only place where a person is guaranteed a warm bed and three meals.
– Most children are raised by their grandparents (if there is a parent figure around at all) because their own parents are either deceased, addicted to drugs and alcohol, or unwilling to parent their kids.
– Eight out of ten girls are sexually abused and five out of ten boys are sexually abused.
Every year, about 80 chiropractic offices around the country collect new toys and clothing for the kids. A few weeks before Christmas we fly to Denver, take another flight to Billings, and then drive six hours to Poplar where we distribute over 15,000 gifts to the the children at four schools. You should see the expressions on these young faces when they are given a new coat, a teddy bear, a pair of tube socks or a big fat hug…glee, surprise, excitement, tears. I think the biggest thrill for them is that year after year we’re back and we did not let them down. In a world filled with fear, poverty, uncertainty and distrust, having something to look forward to is the highlight of their year.
In the summer, we return to the reservation to build a skate park, refurbish a movie theater which has not been used in 30-years, and repair the local pool, thereby giving the kids something safe to do other than get in trouble. Last year, our group organized a sort of make-shift field day consisting of art projects, Cross Fit type boot camp activities, a pizza party, and running around through sprinklers. Despite limited resources and time, the event was a hit. The kids never saw anything like this before – basically a bunch of strangers coming to town and showing them a good time for no other reason than to give a kid in need a bright spark of happiness. Sadly, I do remember asking a girl to draw a picture of something that represented health. A few minutes later she showed the picture she drew of a dark graveyard with RIP written in bold letters.
In the future, we are using donated funds to provide mentoring programs for the kids, suicide prevention and teen pregnancy awareness counseling, and to build a chiropractic clinic on the reservation where our Love Has No Color doctors will work for one week per year on a rotating basis so that the clinic is fully staffed year round.
As we all know, healthier people make better decisions and do healthier things. Our goal is not to change the culture of these beautiful people, but to help them regain their spirit which has been suppressed for so long. This project will allow Native Americans in Montana to start their journey back to health and once again express the pride that their ancestors once had.
The beauty of this project is that because I have participated for over 10 years since the inception of Love Has No Color, I see exactly where the money goes – namely directly to the kids. Our doctors take time away from our practices and families to travel a very long distance to be with children who simply need to understand there really is love in the world, there is hope, there are people who care. Though the statistics are stacked against them, if through any of our efforts at least one or two kids beat the odds and make something positive happen their lives…well, then we are doing our job…one person at a time.