TEN YEARS AGO, IF YOU told me I’d give up the business I spent my life putting together to go build houses on Indian reservations, I’d have said you were nuts. The Seattle-based loungewear company I started with a partner was cranking out a profit. At 33, I’d just married my longtime sweetheart, Anita. I wanted to slow down, have a family, savor life and the rewards of success.
Then I saw that headline.
I was in New Mexico on business and picked up a local paper called Indian Country. There it was on the front page, like an epitaph: “Elders Freeze to Death.” How could such a thing happen here in America, the richest country in the world? I tore out the article and stuck it in my pocket.
That night in my hotel room, meetings done, I read the story again. It seemed so tragic. Somebody—the government, the tribal council—would no doubt do something to make sure it did not happen again. Still, I tucked the clipping into my briefcase instead of throwing it away. Why, I had no idea.
Two weeks later, another business trip. Another headline staring at me from the local paper. “Taos Woman Starts Adopt-A-Grandparent Program for Aging Native Americans.” According to the article, thousands of elderly Native Americans on reservations across the country struggled not just to make ends meet but simply to stay alive. At the end of the piece, there was a number for people interested in volunteering to call. I didn’t stop to think. I just picked up the phone and dialed.
Soon I was matched with a “grandparent”—Katherine Red Feather, of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. I dropped her a note introducing myself. “I am seventy-eight years old,” Katherine wrote back, “and blessed with 13 children and seven grandchildren. I am so happy to learn I now have another grandchild! Do you have a wife and children of your own? I hope so, as they are one of the most wonderful gifts the Great Spirit can give a person in this life.”
I told her about Anita, and how she was indeed a godsend. Then I asked Katherine if there was anything I could send her. “Yes,” she wrote. “If it’s not too much trouble, I would very much appreciate a bottle of shampoo and some aspirin. Thank you for your generosity, Grandson.”
Grandson… Katherine was really taking this program seriously. But shampoo? Aspirin? Why wouldn’t she have such basic items? I decided to visit the reservation after my next business trip and look in on Katherine.
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