“Healthy mind. Healthy body. Healthy spirit.”
That has been the guiding principle at Native American Connections (NAC) since its inception nearly 50 years ago. President and CEO Diana “Dede” Yazzie Devine, who spoke at the Sharing Knowledge to Build a Culture of Health Conference this past February, acknowledges that many now embrace the concept of whole-person health, but said her organization was an early adopter thanks to the community they serve.
“Traditional healing practices differ across tribal communities, but they are all always about the integration of mind, body, and spirit,” she said. “We knew we had to do something to address the trauma of the mind and spirit because health problems often are a response to that, rather than the core physical issue itself.”
The challenges of the population NAC serves in the Phoenix area sound overwhelming – substance abuse, mental illness, diabetes, heart disease, chronic lower respiratory diseases – especially when Dede notes the disparities between their target population and others.
NAC began as a small grassroots organization taking on the first issue, substance abuse, through one program for Native American men in recovery. Today, the organization owns and operates 20 sites throughout Central Phoenix offering a continuum of affordable housing, behavioral health, and community development services, which serve more than 10,000 individuals and families each year. Dede, now in her 39th year at NAC, credits the community it serves with this growth.
“Our expansion into housing came directly from our behavioral health clients,” she said. “They told us, ‘We can’t go back to the same environment.’ They made it clear that they needed a safe place to practice healthy habits to solidify their recovery.”
Dede said there were several barriers to providing this safe space; for example, many health care payers (insurance companies and Medicaid), typically only pay for 30 days or shorter lengths of stay.
“It’s important to build social connections required for ongoing recovery,” Dede said. “These shorter lengths of stay are not long enough to build connections, find a job or get other chronic health conditions under control.”
Not only that, but affordable housing is hard to find. In Arizona, there’s a shortage of nearly 160,000 rental homes that are affordable and available for low-income renters, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition’s latest research.
In response to this challenge, Native American Connections began developing and operating affordable housing communities initially for persons experiencing homelessness and special needs populations and then expanded to serve families with children and elders. NAC opened the first housing community in 1995 and haven’t stopped since. In 2010, they partnered with community leaders from the nonprofit, governmental and business sectors to identify the 50 most vulnerable homeless individuals in Maricopa County, and to get them supportive services and housing at Encanto Pointe.
In 2011, NAC opened Devine Legacy, a LEED platinum certified affordable housing complex with 65 energy-efficient apartments.
In addition to addressing physical needs such as housing, NAC also works to connect their clients to culturally-relevant spiritual support. Their Patina Wellness Center is a residential substance use treatment program which includes sweat lodges, talking circles and drumming ceremonies.
“Many Native youth are searching for a connection to their native language and culture. You have to have a healthy mind, body, and spirit to approach the drum, so we create a foundation for wellness by connecting them back to their culture,” Dede said.
Because our health is greatly influenced by complex factors such as where we live, and the strength of our families and communities, providing culturally appropriate services is critical to achieving positive change. Dede said the proof of a culturally-relevant approach’s power has been in the lives of the clients. The organization offers former clients a pathway to NAC employment and has been pleased to see many of them join the team.
“We have 200 employees and about one-third of them are former clients,” Dede said. “They make the most mission-driven and impactful employees as peer supports and recovery coaches because they can speak from their own lived experience.”
Peer supports or recovery coaches make up one part of the NAC care team. Other members include a master’s level counselor and a case manager.
“There are many programs where someone receives a service and they never see that service provider again. But for us it’s very personal. We provide the service directly to the individual, but also to their family. They become part of a well cultural community,” Dede said. “This aligns with traditional values in that we’re community-focused and we think about the generations before us and ahead of us.”
Support for this blog series is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to highlight insights from the Sharing Knowledge to Build a Culture of Health Conference, convened in collaboration with AcademyHealth. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.