This spring, the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project was able to safely bring kids back together for an eagerly anticipated hybrid cross-country program. Thirty 6- to 11-year-olds signed up for the six-week session, participating in two virtual practices and one in-person race each week.

Charis Boone (pictured at left, in the purple hat) was one of 12 coaches hired to guide and mentor the six teams. A lifelong Zuni resident, she first became involved with ZYEP in 2019, when she was selected to serve as a Summer Camp counselor.

“I liked how ZYEP organized everything,” recalls Charis, 19. “During our training, we went on a four-day trip together. We went rock climbing, camping, and hiking. We really connected and got to know each other on a personal level.”

During Summer Camp that year, Charis says she loved spending time with the campers and getting to know them. She also notes that she learned a lot through her own camp experience.

“I gained leadership, organization, and communication skills,” she explains. “And, I learned about resilience.”

This is Charis’ second season coaching cross country for ZYEP, and she says she would’ve loved this particular program when she was growing up. Not only are the coaches there to provide guidance and instruction, they also serve as mentors and role models for Zuni’s young people.

“We focus on self-improvement, not competition,” she says. “We meet the kids where they are. We want them to feel welcomed and heard, and we want them to know they always have someone to go to.”

Charis’ team included six children, 6 to 9 years old. Over the course of the program, the kids practiced running 1 mile.

“We had some slower runners,” she says. “I would push them to be their best selves. I would stand halfway along the race course to encourage them. One time, I saw two kids who had started to walk, and then another runner came up and said, ‘C’mon, let’s go!’ And they did. I enjoyed that so much.

“One girl kept saying this was too hard,” she continued. “I told her that her body could do it, and to keep telling herself, ‘I believe in myself.’ She said it over and over, and in the end, she sprinted into the finish line! I couldn’t catch up to her. That made me tear up.”

As Charis observes, the program wasn’t only about running. It also was about camaraderie, learning to be part of a team, and supporting each other. She recalls an incident with a child who was missing her pet.

“Her teammates came to sit around her, trying to comfort her and make her laugh,” she says. “In the end, the kids were really focused on the bond they had created, more than on the running. I’m really proud of them.”

An avid runner herself, Charis says she enjoys the sport in her spare time, along with weight training and making glass art. She’s also dedicated to her community.

“I’m going to school at Eastern New Mexico University, working toward my psychology degree,” she says. “I want to be a school counselor here at Zuni High School.”

When asked what others might be surprised to know about the Zuni community, Charis is thoughtful.

“The community is always behind you — in sports, education, everything,” she says. “During cross country, we could see how much our community loves to support our kids.

“I love our culture,” she adds. “You just feel the energy. You feel how positive it is.”