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OJO AMARILLO — Promoting physical fitness is one of the major goals of Wings of America’s Running and Fitness Camp.

Today, a group of students — ranging in age from 6 to 18 — got a taste of that as the summer camp kicked off at Ojo Amarillo Elementary School.

Wings of America, a Santa Fe-based organization, will host 19 camps this summer throughout the Navajo Nation, as well as 11 camps on pueblo lands.

Participants learn about running and the importance of physical fitness while program facilitators develop leadership skills by working with youth, said program director Dustin Martin.

"It's getting kids moving and reminding them that their bodies are something worth taking care of. …Our message is about movement," Martin said.

In addition to the summer activities, Wings of America has partnered for more than 10 years with the Just Move It program and the Health Promotion Disease Prevention program at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, bringing similar running programs to the Navajo Nation.

Today, a group of students from fourth to 12th grades started their day by running a dirt course near the school. At the same time, the sounds of footsteps hitting the floor traveled down a hallway at the school as younger students exercised in the gymnasium.

After the morning run, the older participants gathered inside the cafeteria, where they stood an arm’s length apart to start a series of stretching routines.

"You guys ran hard. I appreciate the effort," Martin said while leading the group.

As the participants exercised, Martin talked about his experience as a member of the cross-country team at Columbia University.

Besides the academic possibilities, running can help a person develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle, he said.

"Think about it. This is the only body you'll ever get, so you have to take care of it," Martin said.

Exercising near the front of the room were Michaela Hawkins, Autumn Harrison and Monique Shim.

The girls, who participate in basketball and track at Kirtland Middle School, encouraged each other to attend the camp to improve their running skills.

Harrison, 13, and Shim, 12, agreed they learned about the importance of maintaining a constant speed while running.

"It's fun," added Hawkins, 13, about the program.

After stretching, the older students moved into the gym to play a game in which they each received black bandannas, or "tails." Players tried to remove others' bandannas to force that player to sit down and exit the game. The last person standing was declared the winner.

Wings facilitators, who were dressed in green shirts, joined the students in the game, encouraging them to move around the gymnasium.

Jasmine Rockwell was the last participant to compete against the facilitators.

"It's a good way of fitness, and it's fun to play with other kids," the 13-year-old said after she was tagged out.

Rockwell, who was wearing a Shiprock Marathon T-shirt, attended the camp with her sisters, Cadence Rockwell, 8, and Destiny Rockwell, 16, who served as a facilitator.

"I like to compete with others. It’s a fun way to exercise, and I enjoy running," Rockwell said.

As a facilitator, the teenager helps participants learn about running techniques and shares information about hydration and developing form and speed. She also runs with the students.

"I thought it was a good program, and I wanted to be involved in it," she said.

The 16-year-old joined cross-country her freshman year at Shiprock High School, in addition to participating in basketball and track.

She said she sees running as physical and mental strengthening that "makes you a better person."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-546-4636.

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