It's astounding when a seemingly ordinary decision can save lives. And that's the story of the organization now called One Nation Walking Together.
It began 16 years ago with Bill and Elaine Glynn's need to clear out a closet. Elaine went looking for a worthy organization to receive their unwanted clothing and discovered the Walking Shield American Indian Society, a national nonprofit that aims to improve the lives of Native Americans. Long story short: The Glynns, of Manitou Springs, kept donating, other people pitched in, and they founded a local chapter in 1997.
Their donations went to reservations throughout the West. In 2003, the chapter split from Walking Shield and took its new name.
Loading the trucks
In 2006, Urban Turzi made another one of those life-changing decisions.
Although Turzi grew up in Philadelphia and is not Native American, he'd always been enthralled by the culture. While in the Air Force, he asked to be stationed somewhere out West, "where the cowboys and Indians were," says his daughter, Kathy Dunson.
Turzi was taking classes in Native American culture when he heard about ONWT's need for volunteers. At a board meeting, he learned that ONWT would close without increased funding and a new director.
Turzi volunteered to lead the organization, thinking it would be just until finances improved.
"I don't think you could rip him out of this position now. He loves the people," says Dunson, ONWT's operations director. Dunson made her own small decision with great consequences: She was between jobs when her father persuaded her to help out for a few weeks — seven years ago.
"I tell people I have the best job, because I meet people from the richest to the poorest, from the lightest to the darkest, from the youngest to the oldest, and everything else in between," Dunson says. "I meet people that are impoverished, people that are rich, people that are impoverished in culture, people that are rich in culture."
Volunteers retrieve gently used and new donations — from furniture to toys to medical supplies — to take back to the facility near Fillmore Street and Cascade Avenue. There, donations are sorted and boxed, then loaded on trucks heading to people who need those specific items.
In 2012, ONWT shared goods worth $884,748 with Native Americans outside Colorado and items worth $281,683 within Colorado, which has two reservations in the Four Corners area.
'Generosity of spirit'
Approximately 1.5 million Native Americans and Alaska natives live on U.S. reservations; they average $4,500 in income per year, and unemployment hovers around 70 percent. Infant mortality is 10 times the national rate, average life expectancy is 58 years, and 80 percent have diabetes, heart disease or tuberculosis. They have the highest teen suicide rate, and 60 percent don't graduate from high school.
Dunson knows their needs are great, but says a little food or clothing given at the right time may at least keep people from starving or freezing to death: "Some people say, 'You're just giving them what they need now.' It's survival right now."
She recalls visiting a reservation home and being served food she later realized was all the family had.
"But you never hear, 'Woe is me,'" she says. "They have a great sense of humor, great sense of spirituality, great artistic ability."
The handful of staffers, two of whom learned about ONWT during last year's Give! campaign, go to or Skype with "anyone who will welcome us," Dunson says.
"We talk to them about what it's like to live on a reservation, in that poverty. But we don't want to share just the negative aspects of what the people are going through. We want to share the positive aspects of the culture. For instance, more Native Americans serve in the military than any other group. Or we'll try to share the art, the dance, the song," with performances by cultural ambassador Eddie Three Eagles.
ONWT collaborates with the Medicine Bear Program at Southern Peaks Regional Treatment Center in Cañon City, which works with young Native Americans healing from trauma.
"They bring Elders and individuals from various tribes and reservations to speak with our youth and share life challenges, inspiration, culture and gifts," Karen Medville, SPRTC's American Indian Program coordinator, writes in an email.
Meanwhile, Dunson is hatching a pet project (excuse the puns) for Native Americans in Colorado's urban areas.
The Chicken Project will start slowly, giving coops and hens to local families; up to 10 hens (no roosters) per home are allowed within city limits. Eventually, they'll expand to reservations, giving those families a source of protein.
Dunson is fostering hens that will begin laying eggs in February for the lucky recipients. It won't be easy to let them go, though. "I've fallen in love with those damn birds," she says as she shows off photos.
Ordinary things like raising chickens, cleaning out a closet or going to a meeting — those small decisions are saving lives and changing history.