Wings of America
SANTA FE, N.M. - August 14, 2018 - Valencia Tilden remembers her first trip out of state to run in USA Track and Field’s (USATF) Cross Country Championships. Tilden, (Diné) who ran for Gallup High School and was a top runner in New Mexico, had never run in a national meet before, yet alone against the top high school runners in the country.
Worried, Tilden sat in the hallway after a Wings of America meeting the day before the race. Tilden, who was running for Wings, was then approached by someone who saw her concern and encouraged her to do her best. Little did she know the man was All-American collegiate runner Phillip Castillo (Acoma Pueblo), who ran for Adams State University.
“He continues to be a source of encouragement and continues to speak positive words into my life kind of like a coach or a big brother,” said Tilden, now 40, reflecting on her participation in organization that uses running initiatives to empower Native youth. Wings “provided a little family, an awareness and knowledge of what we could achieve outside our communities, which for most of us was outside our small reservations.”
It’s these kind of relationships that Wings of America continues to foster, providing participants with skills beyond running and role models who encourage Native youth to do and be their best. The nonprofit celebrates three decades of programming for Native youth this year.
“Since its inception, Wings has stressed to participants that they are part of a beautiful tradition, a lineage of world-class distance runners. So rather than running way from addiction, abuse, violence or poverty, they’ve been running toward the promise that if they work hard they will become part of a family of heroes,” said Dustin Martin (Diné), Wings executive director who grew up idolizing Wings runners at Gallup High where his mother was a cross country coach. Martin later ran on two Wings National Teams and went to Columbia University to earn a degree and compete in NCAA Division-I sports.
In its 30 years with at least 50,000 participants, Wings’ achievements are many: 30 national team titles at USATF Cross Country Championships and dozens of individual spots earned on Junior Team USA to compete internationally.
The organization also has several community-based programs, including Flight Club, an after school program, summer running and fitness camps, coaching clinics and leadership trainings, in addition to a partnership with the Boston Athletic Association and Harvard University in which Wings flies high school juniors to Harvard during the Boston Marathon weekend to learn about the college admissions process and experience one of the most popular long distance races in the world.
, a free fun run/walk series hosted at 18 of New Mexico’s 19 Pueblos that encourages movement for the whole family. Families from each of the villages, some traveling more than a 75 miles to participate in other Pueblo’s events, climb an obstacle course or trudge through desert arroyos in the summer heat to earn a prized T-shirt provided by Wings for loyal “returners” and bragging rights.
The organization also most recently served as a cultural advisor and associate producer for a new documentary, 3100: Run and Become, featuring ultra runners, including Shaun Martin (Diné), Wings board member and creator of the Canyon De Chelley Ultra. 3100: Run and Become makes its theatrical nationwide release starting August 17 in Santa Fe during Indian Market weekend and will continue in Albuquerque August 24-30.
For Tilden and so many others, Wings provided support and reminders of what’s possible. Tilden, who will begin her second master’s degree at Harvard this fall, worked with Wings for several summers on the Navajo Nation after graduating from Cornell and becoming an elementary teacher in the Gallup public schools.
“It’s a very, very important message that Wings has spread to Native youth: they can achieve anything that they set their mind to, including how to eat healthy, knowledge about diabetes, the importance of having fun, having a space to play and connecting with the people around them and connection to their communities. That’s pretty valuable,” Tilden said.
“Wings to me is like a family – once you are member of Wings, you have been a participant in Wings, you have many people to connect to or reach out to at any point in time. You are not alone.”
Wings of America will celebrate its 30th anniversary with 3100: Run and Become director Sanjay Rawal on August 17 at the premiere screening in Santa Fe. The screening will include a panel discussion with:
- Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota), Wings emeritus board member and Olympic gold medalist
- Shaun Martin
- Oren Lyons (Onondaga), Wings founding board member and environmentalist
- Henry Rono, a former collegiate athlete and a world record holder of every distance on the track from 3,000-meters to 10,000-meters