West side man mentors youth, inspires community in spite of deadly disease
Mar 19, 2023, 9:55 PM | Updated: Mar 20, 2023, 7:38 am
SALT LAKE CITY — There are few who really know about Utah’s Native American history and even fewer represent the tribes that lived on these lands. Yet one man does both, and he’s making a big difference within the west side community.
Across Interstate 15 on the west side sits Neighborhood House, a place for kids to go for before or after school programs.
Nate Manuel is a teacher and is in charge of the intergenerational student program for K-12 students.
“We just try to teach a lot of life skill activities,” Manuel said.
Skills like art and cooking, but also understanding respect and when bullying occurs.
The greatest lessons Manuel has taught have come from who he is.
“He’s kind,” said Cassandra Miranda, one of Manuel’s students.
Henry Acevedo, another student, has known Manuel for two years.
“He’s a really nice guy, he’s fun and he’s cool,” Acevedo said.
Manuel’s students show him appreciation with greetings and hugs as he walks through the hallway at Neighborhood House – his main focus is being present for them because he’s walked in their shoes.
“Sometimes being the only person of color in the room, let alone being the only native, it’s just hard,” said Manuel. “You’re alone. And you do feel like, you’re like the only one dancing in the rain.“
But Manuel shows his students how to keep dancing through life – that’s been his story since day one.
Manuel’s ancestry runs through two Native American tribes from southern Arizona. Manuel grew up on the Tohono O’odham Nation Indian Reservation.
At 5 years old, Manuel moved to Salt Lake City where he went to school.
Later, Manuel coached girls’ and boys’ basketball at West and East high schools for more than a decade and was a part of other youth programs around the valley before landing at Neighborhood House.
The Neighborhood House started in 1894, specifically to help underprivileged kids with their education.
In 2020, they served nearly 400 kids, and half of them were in the school-age programs.
“More than anything, I want to do it for the kids,” Manuel said.
For Manuel, it’s all about helping the one in around 60,000 Native Americans throughout the Beehive State, with around 2,500 in the Salt Lake Valley.
Though they are small in numbers, Manuel believes there are more important things than representation – it’s all about the land.
“We’re just trying to reclaim our ancestral ways,” Manuel said.
Part of reclaiming is educating, which is the main motivation for Manuel to teach his students how to grow their own gardens. At the end of a harvest, Manuel said they made homemade salsa together to celebrate.
Manuel has also created a documentary, “This Was the Place,” about the natural tribal lands in the Beehive State and surrounding area.
All his efforts are focused on helping others understand his heritage.
His influence has extended to many within the west side community, making Manuel an advocate and leader for those in need, even though he has some needs of his own.
In 2020, Manuel started experiencing unexpected symptoms, but it wasn’t until 2022 that doctors found out what was going on.
“I thought it was just a normal limp, but when I found out what it was, I was like ‘dang” and was sad,” Acevedo said.
What doctors told Manuel was not comforting – he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a deadly disease that breaks down the nerve cells in your brain and back.
“They told me it’s only a matter of time,” Manuel said. “So, when it comes to me having a time limit, I just want to be present.”
Present for his students and their future – after all, this isn’t the first time Manuel has danced in the rain.
“It is challenging, but I’m still happy,” Manuel said. “I’m not going to let anybody take my happiness.”
Friends have created a GoFundMe* for Manuel and plan to hold an “ice bucket” challenge for him.
*KSL TV does not assure that the money deposited to the account will be applied for the benefit of the persons named as beneficiaries. If you are considering a deposit to the account, you should consult your own advisors and otherwise proceed at your own risk.