NABI collaborates with coaches on opening avenues to youth service

Ian Tong (right) talks with Kyla Powell and other guests during the Coaches Gathering on June 6 in Gallup, New Mexico, initiated by the Native American Bahá’í Institute. Photo courtesy of the Gallup Independent

Without doubt, school sports programs have become an abundant resource for thousands of young people among American Indian populations in the Four Corners region — Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo and Apache, among others. But, as in many communities, efforts to translate the team-building experience into practical community service and sportsmanship off the field aren’t always systematic. 

The Native American Bahá’í Institute (NABI) in Houck, Arizona, is learning systematic ways to partner with high school sports coaches and teams to explore questions about effectively entering into the arena of community service. A principal question is, how can groups such as sports teams collaborate on, plan and implement social actions to benefit their community?
After consultation with several high school administrators, coaches and referees, NABI organized a June 6 evening event to introduce coaches to the concept, on the theme “Raising the Bar of Excellence Through Sportsmanship and Service.” Held in Gallup, New Mexico, the evening brought in six coaches from schools that serve the Arizona and New Mexico communities of Fort Wingate, Kayenta, Sanders, Shiprock, Tohatchi and Zuni.

A program handed to the coaches set the tone with quotations from Bahá’í and native sources on the social value of sports. Among them was an excerpt from “Function of Sport in Life,” a student essay written by Shoghi Effendi for the 1914–1915 issue of the Students Union Gazette at American University in Beirut, several years before he was appointed Guardian:

“The word sport is a contracted form of ‘disport’ which means to divert one’s self. It includes play, amusement, entertainment or recreation. Sports have … played an important role in the history of mankind. … If we consider sports from a general point of view and consider their relation to the life of the ancient people we … come to the conclusion that sports, if well conducted, have always raised the standard of the nation to a very high degree. … Athletics, a branch of sports, is of great advantage to life. … Athletics refresh the body, tranquilize and enlighten the mind, and develop moral character. … Sports, in general, have had an important and estimable function in life and will inevitably in future be regarded as the indispensable factor for intellectual and moral growth.”

The after-dinner program, with a reporter and photographer from the Gallup Independent present, began with a video presentation of an ESPN feature on the Hopi High School boys cross-country program, a perennial championship team in Arizona.

Guest speakers included two coaches, Tanisha Bitsoi from Tohatchi and Larenson Henderson from Shiprock, who have led girls’ basketball teams to New Mexico state titles. They spoke on how they motivate their teams and how sports have benefited the students and can positively impact their communities, bringing them together. “A lot of the kids that won state, little do we know what they go through when they go home. So it meant a lot when they say, they are in your hands,” the newspaper quoted Bitsoi as saying.

Next steps will include introducing an eight-hour program to various sports teams at a high school. That is expected to include training for team captains, a group study of passages on culture and the Bahá’í writings on sports and community service, then consultation on a social action to choose for their region. It’s envisioned the students will organize a three-hour service activity, then families and the school are to be invited to a reflection on the action and learning.

If team members are interested in doing more than this single service project during a season, they can assist with building capacity in teams at the middle-school level, and learn more about being introduced to animators and to the junior youth spiritual empowerment program.

“I was deeply moved listening to coaches Tanisha Bitsoi and Larenson Henderson talk about the negative destructive forces their student athletes face and how they incorporate culture and scholarship into their sports programs,” says Ian Tong, operations manager at NABI. “Their care and compassion for their students and communities is inspiring. I look forward to learning about empowering their student athletes to engage in community-based social action.”

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