Jan 02, 2020

M.A.S.T. Student’s Resolution to Help Native Americans

By Lori Draz and Shane Schechter

Welcome to Teen Scene. Each month our young authors write, in their own voice, stories that will educate and inform fellow students and parents. If you are a teen who would like to write your story, contact The Journal. We’ll help you polish it up, so don’t worry, let’s just get to sharing.

This month’s author is 17-year-old Shane Schechter, of Rumson, a student at the Marine Academy of Science and Technology on Sandy Hook. This is the first month of a new decade and a perfect time to pause and reflect on the first residents of the United States: Native Americans. These proud people were the original caregivers of our great nation. Their culture is rich, respectful and caring, yet Native Americans are often overlooked, finding themselves struggling with poor education, poverty and misunderstanding. Shane’s love for the original citizens turned into action, and now his passion is helping these great people enjoy healthy and productive lives in the nation that was their own. Here is Shane’s story.

Since I was little, I have always been fascinated by Native American culture. I collected dream catchers, kachina dolls and other handmade crafts. Then, in 2015, my fascinations came to life when I visited the Grand Canyon and the Navajo Nation. I was amazed that a place in the United States could seem like it was a world away. I returned the following year to visit Canyon de Chelly and met some of the Navajo people who have lived in this sacred place for more than 700 years. The people and their stories stuck with me.

I was astonished to learn that 40 percent of Native Americans live below the poverty line, which is lower than some Latin American countries. Ten percent have no electricity, and 6 percent of Native American households lack plumbing. By contrast, only one-third of 1 percent of Caucasians lack plumbing. Furthermore, only 30 percent of Native Americans have access to clean drinking water. In fact, much of the Navajo land is tainted by uranium deposits, stemming from mining during World War II. It has contaminated the drinking water and livestock, causing many to become sick and develop cancer. All of these horrible living conditions and toxins affect the first Americans right in our backyard!

Last summer, I returned again, but this was no vacation. My mission was to help these ancient and incredible people. The physicians at the local clinic relayed the problems of obesity, alcoholism, diabetes and one of the worst dental health problems in the country. Before my trip, I organized a campaign to collect toothpaste and toothbrushes to be donated to their dental clinic. During the two weeks I spent there, I developed a health handout that discussed proper diet and dental hygiene for infants and adults which I placed in a bag with the collected toothpaste and toothbrushes. Because only a small percentage of elders speak and read English, I used the internet and coordinated with the dedicated Navajo nurses to translate simple English words into Navajo. With words longer than those in Icelandic and unique nasal sounds, Navajo is the most challenging and complicated language I have ever heard, and the spelling is nearly impossible. For example, their word for the color green is táłʼidgo doołʼizh. It sounds like a mixture of German, Chinese and Hebrew.

I also assisted doctors in medical procedures and helped patients in the hospital. As I volunteered at the three medical clinics, I listened to patients, heard their life stories, and learned of the wonder and plight of these indigenous people. Though their lives are undoubtedly harder and more different ours, they share many of the same problems we have in New Jersey. One teenager explained the social tension he experienced at school and how he plays basketball during his free time to ease the stress. A young mother told she struggles to find time to see doctors for her persistent headaches that are linked to the enormous responsibility of taking care of her children and her aging parents.

 After a long day at the clinic, I would often hike through the canyon to enjoy the sunset. Many Navajo families were there too, as the summer heat can be staggering during the day. The most beautiful thing that I witnessed was their sense of family and the way they care for one another. As they hiked the steep cliffs of Canyon de Chelly, they carefully watched that all safely reached the top. This is how they live everyday life. The young take care of the old, and if the old are well enough, they take care of the young. Everybody takes care of each other as well as the land on which they farm and live. There is a deep respect for Mother Earth, a lesson the rest of us Americans can certainly learn.

We may be from vastly different parts of the country and different cultures, but we are all still Americans who share the same human conditions. I hope to bring awareness to the struggles of these ancient and amazing people and let them know that they are not forgotten, even thousands of miles away here in New Jersey. Consequently, I am collaborating with students at my school to raise money and collect donations of food, personal care products, household products and medical supplies that can benefit the lives of those Native Americans who are in need. I have also opened a GoFundMe page called “A Helping Hand for Our Fellow Native Americans.” In addition, I am planning a bake sale from Native American recipes and a “Helping Hand” bracelet sale at my school this spring. You can contact me at helpinghand4nativeamericans@mail.com if you would like more information on how to help or donate. I hope you will join me to make a difference in their lives. Thank you!