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Kris Rhodes finds her calling in public health

Cloquet native Kristine Rhodes was on the fast track to becoming a family practice doctor when she discovered something that turned her world around.

"When I was in high school, I participated in a Biomedical Science Program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth Medical School every summer," she explained. "I thought for sure I was heading to medical school, but while I was in the third year of my program, I learned of community health education. The hook was that I could impact the health of an entire community with this approach rather than working at it one person at a time."

She switched majors and graduated from UMD with a bachelor's degree in community health education. Today, she heads up the national American Indian Cancer Foundation (AICAF) in Minneapolis, and while she's hard at work as the non-profit foundation's executive director, it's been a long journey to where she stands today.

Rhodes grew up in Cloquet, the daughter of Shirley (Witeli) Reynolds and LaVerne DeFoe. She attended Cloquet Public Schools and graduated in 1987.

"I really enjoyed the social aspects of school and did well academically," she recalled. "Looking back, I really appreciate the work Carol Jaakola did with teaching Ojibwe language and culture. I didn't realize how important it was back then and wish I would've invested more time and energy into that class. I believe Ojibwe culture class should be a requirement for all students, not just an elective. Our entire community would benefit."

Rhodes worked for a number of group homes for developmentally challenged people both in Cloquet and in Duluth while she was in high school and college.

"I learned a lot about running a home, a business, developing program goals and objectives, evaluation and budgeting while in this job," she said. "I also learned a lot about myself."

After graduating from UMD, Rhodes was hired by the Fond du Lac Reservation Human Services Division as health educator. During her 10 years there, she developed the initial health education programming that centers around employee wellness programs, health assessments, bike safety, family Olympics, first aid/CPR, HIV/AIDS teen education, and smoking prevention and cessation.

She always hoped to go on to earn a master's degree in public health, and in 1998 she was accepted into the program at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. She went on to complete her MPH in public health administration and policy in 2000.

She worked as a research coordinator for several projects in the Division of Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health for 10 years and has a number of published manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals on topics such as breast feeding, teen pregnancy, otitis media (inflammation of the middle ear), and smoking.

Her commitment to promoting health within the Native American community was unflagging, so when she had an opportunity to take it a step further, she jumped at the chance.

A year ago last month, the AICAF was founded by a group of American Indian health professionals and community leaders who recognized the increasing needs surrounding cancer in American Indian communities, and Rhodes got in on the ground floor.

"I decided to take the position as the first executive director of this organization because - as someone who has committed my career to elevating the health status of American Indian people - I realized that this organization has the potential to make a difference. And even after only one year, we are making a difference!" she said proudly.

As the executive director, she is responsible to a board of directors and is expected to lead the organization on all fronts: communications, fundraising, strategic planning, development, evaluation and budgeting.

"I even make the coffee!" she added with a smile.

Rhodes said cancer has been increasing in the American Indian population at a time when it is decreasing in every other population. In fact, cancer is the leading cause of death for American Indians across the Northern Plains, including Minnesota. The reasons behind this are complex, she said, including many community-level barriers such as lack of access to quality health care, lack of health insurance, underfunded health systems, lack of culturally-tailored health programs and high rates of poverty.

"In addition to these factors, we have to recognize the individual risks," Rhodes said. "The killer fact is that smoking cigarettes and breathing cigarette smoke is linked to 87 percent of lung cancer and 32 percent of all cancers; of course activity and diet are also important. We need to eat like our ancestors did - more fruits and vegetables and less processed food and animal products."

And while Rhodes' belief in the academic and philanthropic reasons behind such a program is devout, her personal reasons are equally as compelling.

"My personal story behind cancer is that of my grandma, Betty Ella," she related. "She worked so hard all of her life, taking care of generations of the family. When I was in college, she asked me to take her to St. Mary's hospital for a day surgery. She told me she had breast cancer but she'd be fine and I could pick her up that afternoon. She was not fine and in fact didn't ever leave the hospital. She obviously had late stage cancer that had spread throughout her body. I don't know how long she knew she had cancer and I cannot imagine how sick she was."

Less than a year later, Rhodes herself was told she had precancerous cells that needed to be treated.

"With the help of Mary Jo, a wonderful health care provider at Fond du Lac Human Services, and more than a year of treatment, I came out cancer-free," she said. "The American Indian people who live in this area have access to better health care than most American Indians across the country. This is because of the incredible health system Fond du Lac Reservation has developed and invested gaming profits in. It is one of the best examples in the country."

The AICAF offers education programs, organizes community health events and works with health programs, and much of the emphasis is on prevention and early detection. The organization's 10-year plan includes partnering with American Indian communities to gather relevant information and deliver programs.

Rhodes said the organization is also planning a powwow to honor cancer survivors, raise awareness of cancer risks and increase resources to ease the burdens of cancer for those who suffer from it.

The "Powwow for Hope" is set for April 28 at the YWCA on East Lake Street in Minneapolis. Teams have already committed to come from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Fond du Lac Reservation, the White Earth Reservation, Mille Lacs and the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, and more are invited to participate. Teams will have the opportunity to have a booth at the event to raise money by selling food, crafts or activities, and funds raised at the powwow will support the work of the AICAF.

Rhodes said events such as this one help make her mission more effective by involving the greater community in the work espoused by the foundation.

"The most fulfilling aspect of the work is being able to coordinate my ideas, strategies and relationships with many wonderful people to develop programs and policies that lead to improved health for people today and for future generations," reflected Rhodes.

AICAF celebrated one year in January and has experienced an incredible amount of success in terms of programming, funding and marketing during that first year.

"Most of the work is focused cancer prevention but long term goals include supportive services for cancer patients and their families," said Rhodes.

Most recently, AICAF was awarded a three-year research grant from ClearWay Minnesota to fund integration of tobacco interventions into health care visits in three American Indian clinics, with Rhodes as principal investigator.

Rhodes said she has been particularly thankful for the support of her family as she travels this journey toward promoting public health within her Native American community.

"I have an amazing husband of more than 17 years, Jason," she said. "He is my rock. He and I have three wonderful children: our 16 year-old son, Tyler; a 13 year-old niece, Haley; and a 10 year-old daughter, Alayna. Being a mom, and auntie, to these kids is the best thing in the world (most days!). I feel so blessed that I get to be a part of enjoying and shaping their lives. They each are so talented, funny and absolutely beautiful inside and out."

Rhodes said if there is any sort of legacy she would like to leave behind for her fellow Native Americans and the population in general, it would be to open their eyes to the fact that American Indian health is a social justice issue.

"Health should not be reserved for any group of people," she reasoned. "American Indian populations have experienced the worst health conditions of any population since it has been measured. It is time for equity. I will always work toward this goal."