United Tribes NewsFitness program has momentum
Campus wellness initiative ten years on
United Tribes News photos DENNIS J. NEUMANN
24 January 2012
BISMARCK (UTN) - Daniel Molnar offers this iron-clad guarantee to the students and staff of United Tribes Technical College: they'll be 'wide awake' after starting their day with him. It's because of his 6:30 a.m. fitness class three days per week.
Molnar is the college's fitness specialist. He signed on last fall as part of a team of new players promoting wellness through fitness in a program called Strengthening Lifestyles.
"We're aiming to help people live well by getting themselves into a wellness routine if they don't have one," said Marcus C. Austin, the new director of the program. "Even if it isn't the morning class, we're committed to finding ways of making wellness activities accessible and part of people's daily routines."
Austin grew up at Standing Rock and was educated at Brown University. He and his family recently returned to the area after living in Hawaii. His academic, management and business skills and experience are valued in UTTC's Strengthening Lifestyles Program. The program coordinates an array of campus lifestyle activities, events and programs that range anywhere from youth activities, walking clubs and beading, to movies, dancing, aerobics and handgames and more. UTTC has a long history of activity programming for its students and staff going back to the college's origins in 1969. The program now is more involved and firmly established as an indispensable part of campus life, funded through the college's general fund and not by grants that might come and go.
Austin's staff includes Molnar, who is also the college's track and cross country coach, and newly hired Family Specialist Brad Barter, a Lakota/Oglala from Canada, who built a career in the military and later became an addiction counselor. Physical Specialist Tamera Marshall (Standing Rock), with the program for three years, recently filled-in as director when Ruth Buffalo-Zarazua, the program's first director, accepted a scholarship and left to pursue a master's degree in Public Health.
The program's strong emphasis on physical activity is well-suited to its location in the college's $2.7 million Lewis Goodhouse Wellness Center. Dedicated in 2006, it was named to honor a college founder from one of the college's governing tribes, Spirit Lake. With state-of-the-art exercise equipment and facilities, it might be mistaken for a health club. But, physical fitness is only one component of the center's holistic mission. The new facility allowed the college to bring together several of its programs that employ professional nurses, counselors and advisers. Along with the fitness team, the center serves the spiritual, mental, physical and emotional needs of a campus community the size of a small town on the plains (daily population about 1,200) with students who come from over 50 different tribes around the country.
UTTC Wellness Initiative
The college began work its wellness program over 10 years ago prompted by alarming disparities in the health status and causes of death of Native Americans. Compared with that of non-Indians, the rates of diabetes, heart disease, accidents and suicide were, and still are, significantly higher. The death rate for all causes of Native Americans in the upper Great Plains was twice that of non-Indians.
United Tribes President David M. Gipp, and his administrative council of vice presidents, initiated a study in 2000. On August 19, 2002, Gipp launched the college's health and wellness initiative with a formal proclamation. It recognized the health threats to the "at risk" campus population and called for initiatives to join the then-growing "Native, holistic wellness movement." Ten years on, wellness is now a fully-integrated value in campus life.
One of the key steps on the road to wellness was bringing together all stakeholders on campus. A group known as the "Wellness Circle" emerged from the early study process and began meeting regularly to implement the initiative.
As planning progressed for the new wellness center building, service providers in the college's Student and Campus Services Division began organizing and expanding their outreach and training efforts into formal wellness programs scheduled throughout the academic year. They developed wellness days, wellness weeks, and wellness walks. Employees were encouraged to adopt the practice of using 30 minutes per/day as a wellness break arranged and approved through their supervisors. Health fairs were conducted to raise awareness about Native health issues and provide specific health screening information to individuals. Surveys were administered and dozens of wellness speakers were invited to campus. The topics ranged from diet and diabetes to smoking cessation, fitness exercising, spiritual healing, and the 'Red Road' sobriety way of life.
The concept of "healthy lifestyle choices" was promoted. Benefits were to be found in improved academic and work performance, and in more favorable rates of absenteeism and retention among students and in the workplace. An added goal was to address the volume of health care usage in the college's self-funded group health insurance plan.
The health and wellness initiative created a synergy on the campus that helped form a particularly strategic partnership on a central component of wellness: diet. The United Tribes Land Grant programs, along with the college's Nutrition and Foodservice academic vocation, joined forces with the Wellness Center. The collaboration addresses an often-overlooked and critical dimension in a comprehensive wellness program.
The result has been an emphasis on food and nutrition as part of wellness, and the participation and support of trained professionals. Their presence brings special awareness about the challenge of diabetes for Native Americans. Their work includes educational publications on plains Native diet, the use of buffalo and Native crops like the "three sisters," corn, beans and squash, and the value of a balanced diet that includes vegetables and fruits. There are demonstrations and classes in cooking and food safety, and the further development of campus gardens and gardening programs for students and staff. More recently, the collaborative work of the Wellness Circle has been revived under the coordination of Land Grant Programs Director Pat Aune.
Fitness Game Plan
For Austin, and the other new members of his fitness staff, the challenge of picking up the trail of wellness at United Tribes is made easier by regularly attending the Wellness Circle meetings. There they find continuity by receiving briefings about past activities and upcoming initiatives. They now report on their own emerging fitness game-plan for the campus community.
"In my own experience, I'm struck by how we take for granted the benefits of being active," said Austin. "We all grow up being active. Later, the weight we put on certainly points us back toward activity. I believe we can get people back into that lifestyle but it has to be with routines they can maintain. And that's really the key. It has to be adopted as part of a person's lifestyle. It takes a commitment to resume being active and stick with it."
One commitment of the fitness staff is to always have someone available in the Wellness Center during its regular hours 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and 1 to 9 p.m. on weekends. Lengthening the hourly schedule is under consideration and new hours may be announced.
"We're gearing up to help people not just in groups but as individuals, to find the routines that will work," said Austin. "We know that Dan's morning workout isn't for everyone. People have lives; they're busy with kids, family, work and their studies. We're here to help find out what works. How do we serve you where it will be of most benefit to you?"
The staff has published and posted its first monthly calendar of fitness activities. The offerings range from that early-bird workout with Dan, to the walking club, weightlifting, yoga, Zumba, open gym, and much more. Austin is working to integrate the schedule with other events of the academic year to help participants avoid the conflicts that often win-out over fitness activity. Clearly, he and his staff are bringing new energy to the college's wellness team.
For the Strengthening Lifestyles Program, he says, the common theme is to "keep it moving" in your own way. And he urges the campus to take advantage of the golden opportunity to pursue wellness in a place that has worked at it for awhile and recognizes its value.