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Lower Fruitland man uses $10,000 Dreamstarter grant to promote fitness in the community

Noel Lyn Smith
The Daily Times

UPPER FRUITLAND — As rock music echoed inside the Walter Collins Center on Thursday, Rashaun Nez observed the form and techniques used by the seven students enrolled in his Warrior Fitness Challenge program.

Nez developed the six-week program, which is free and open up to 20 participants ages 14 and older, to encourage community members to increase their physical activity and think about their health.

Another objective is to address health problems by showing people that change can be made, even through small steps.

"This is a way to show them that as a community, they can combat this epidemic together, and together they can send a message for future generations," Nez said in an interview this week.

His idea for starting the program took shape thanks to a $10,000 grant from Dreamstarter, a program housed under Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills.

Nez, 20, is one of 10 Native American youth nationwide who received grant money through the program. The youth must use the money to implement wellness projects in their communities.

"It happened unexpectedly. It's not like I planned for it, but I'm not shying away from the responsibility. I've embraced it," Nez said.

Nez is a certified trainer and works as a personal trainer at Gym Lou's in downtown Farmington.

His interest in physical fitness started with chores his father assigned to him and his brothers on their farm in Lower Fruitland. Nez participated in cross-country, football, track and wrestling at Kirtland Central High School, where he graduated in 2013. Right now, he attends San Juan College and would like to transfer to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., to pursue a degree in exercise science or business.

"I believe that it's essential for the Native youth to go out and to participate in sports and to do any kind of exercise, whether it is fitness camps, basketball, running, soccer," Nez said.

He also understands there are individuals who are interested in joining a gym but cannot afford it or are intimidated by the equipment. Eliminating those barriers is another reason he conducts his program in a community setting with one-to-one instruction.

He leads his classes from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and 10 to 11 a.m. Thursdays at the Walter Collins Center in Upper Fruitland. On Tuesdays, participants complete an hour of physical activity, followed by an hour of health education. The entire hour on Thursdays is devoted to a workout.

Nez launched the program Tuesday, with each participant having their blood pressure, body mass index, height and weight checked.

Nez used a portion of the grant to purchase dumbbells, barbells and yoga mats, which were set up while the group completed a series of warm up exercises on Thursday.

After stretching, Nez asked students to select a pair of dumbbells. He watched as they picked out weights and then offered guidance to a couple of students.

"Don't go too heavy, keep it light," he said to the students who were debating which dumbbells to use.

When the class started using barbells, Nez explained the weight lifting routine while his girlfriend, Emily Hunt, demonstrated the lifting technique. As Hunt, 18, lifted along with the class, Nez checked each student's form for proper position and handling of the barbells.

Whenever he saw a student mishandling the equipment, he corrected their position.

Upper Fruitland resident Anita Pioche was grateful for Nez's instruction.

"I'm scared because I don't know which one, which size, to use," Pioche, 66, said in an interview after class.

Her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Marie Pioche, 69, is also enrolled in the class.

"He guided us along," she said. The Upper Fruitland resident later added, "It's a positive way to occupy your time."

Wilbur Smith, 26, participated in the class alongside his brother, Wesley Smith, 15. The brothers said they registered to learn proper weight lifting techniques and improve their health.

"I used to weigh a lot less three years ago. I gained a lot of weight, it's been hard to stay motivated," said Wilbur Smith of Farmington. He added he started working out within the past month, so the biweekly classes will help with his determination to get fit.

Wesley Smith of Upper Fruitland said this is the first time he has heard of this type of program being offered in Upper Fruitland.

"I think it's great, especially because it's free," he said.

Nez is working to offer his next set of classes in Nenahnezad Chapter.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.