Youth obesity and the potential for chronic disease may be headline news, but 15-year- old athlete Caitlin Baker wants her Native American peers to focus on the positive, and learn how to achieve healthy lifestyles.
A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, Caitlin already has founded a nonprofit organization, Competitive American Indians Turning Lifestyles Into New Beginnings, or CAITLINB, and for three years has traveled across the country telling youth that they don't have to be represented in the negative statistics on youth obesity.
"It's up to you to show people," she says. "Just because my family does it or my friends do it, doesn't mean I have to do it."
As a competitive swimmer, she has seen the positive effects of sports in her own life during the last six years, and as her organization partners with national agencies and organizations she continues to promote physical activity. The goal is to help other young people learn to live as healthy advocates, empowered to speak to their leaders about what activities are desired to live healthy lives.
"You hear every day that you need to be healthy, and they already know that," Caitlin said. "Now it's up to us to put the necessities out there to allow them to do it-it takes partnerships to accomplish anything in life."
Through a partnership with Cleveland County's Students Working against Tobacco (SWAT), county residents worked to end smoking in area parks in Norman, Okla. Working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Caitlin has distributed the Eagle Series books, which teach second and third graders about physical activity, healthy eating and diabetes prevention.
Also underway are partnerships with the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Smithsonian Institute. Next, Caitlin is planning a minority youth leadership conference and she still intends to travel and speak about 15 times a year.
The Oklahoma teen is far from naïve about many young people's situations.
"I'm a swimmer; I love being athletic and I think all kids should have something they're passionate about," she said, noting while that sports are positive, "a lot of organized sports-it's expensive. A lot of it is [about] affordability."
That is why the rising high school sophomore makes it a point to speak with community leaders while visiting different schools and tribes, in order to relate youth concerns to their leaders.
When she first began CAITLINB in 2006, she was away from the pool because of a broken arm. Months before, she'd met a competitor at the North American Indigenous Games who spoke honestly about youth experiences on reservations. The stories inspired her to figure out how she could encourage her peers who might not have the same opportunities.
"I knew what I wanted to talk about- not only to kids, but adults," said Caitlin. "At first I didn't know anything about these topics, but just because I haven't experienced them doesn't mean I can't talk about it."
After seeking guidance and resources, she was able to speak to her peers, reminding them she is just a regular teenager, with the same amount of potential they have.
"I know these kids are able to do great things," she said. "Sometimes I think adults expect the worst from youth and youth see that. I think the way that makes them feel is, 'I knew it was going to happen.'"
Caitlin believes young people can also influence their leaders.
"I think Caitlin encourages them to use their voice," said Edith Baker, Caitlin's mom. "She said 'I can't go up and knock on the door of President Obama and say, I'd like to sit down and talk with you about what I'd like to see changed, but native youth, they're lucky that they can do that. They have a lot of power, because they can talk to their leaders."
Baker, who was adopted as a child, said she sees value in getting young people to accomplish tasks.
"We look at instant gratification in youth as a negative, but if you take it as a positive, if you take that instant gratification and channel it into a positive thing, they're going to do amazing things," said the mother of three. "In Caitlin's mind when she voices 'I want to do this conference,' it's done. In her mind she's already completed the task; she just has to fill in the blanks."
With a conference plan already outlined, Caitlin continues to balance her swimming, studies and passion for health, while maintaining her A and B average. Her goals are a mixture of a long- and short-term plans, but she admits they all include CAITLINB. She hopes to continue encouraging youth to look at the possibilities of life and maybe one day do that as the first female chief of her tribe.
Fia Curley is a writer for the OMHRC. Comments? E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org