Through the years, Zuni youth have come to ZYEP for a variety of reasons. Some are interested in summer camp or sports, while others want to learn about Native food sovereignty or develop their artistic skills. They stay because they have something in common: They seek to strengthen their connection to Zuni culture.

Darren Lesarlley, 11, is one of those young people. He originally came to ZYEP in 2018 so he could take part in the Youth Sport program.

“I started coming so I could do flag football,” he recalls. “My dad asked me if I wanted to join. I said, yeah, this is new, and I just want to give it a try.”

Then, in winter 2021, his cousin Aidan asked if he wanted to join Ho’n A:wan Productions’ Delapna:we Project, a collaboration between ZYEP, A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, Edaakie Arts, ShiwiSun Productions, and other Zuni community members. Delapna:we is a Zuni word that means sharing oral history or retelling fables with a moral or lesson that happened a long time ago.

At the youth project, these oral stories come to life through the performing arts. During the first two years, that meant live stage performances. During the two pandemic years, however, project leaders transformed these performances into a series of animations on Zoom and then a film production.

For his first year with the Delapna:we Project, Darren participated in the film production of “Turkey Girl.” The film aired in February 2022, within the strict storytelling timeframe required to meet Zuni cultural protocols.

“I kind of felt shy, because it was my first year,” Darren says. “I’d never done it before. I’d only watched.”

Not only did the young performer conquer his shyness, he enjoyed the experience so much, he’s planning to join the Delapna:we Project again this year. There were, he explains, so many highlights.

“One of my favorite parts was probably Norene (Lonasee, ZYEP youth development specialist) teaching us about the Zuni language and how important our culture is,” he says. “My other favorite parts were acting with my acting group, and watching the movie at the end when it was all put together.”

After multiple basketball and flag football seasons with Youth Sport and his experience with the Delapna:we Project, Darren says ZYEP has had a positive impact on his life. He explains he feels more connected with his culture — and more confident about himself, especially after going on camera knowing that hundreds of people would see his performance.

Most of all, he says, ZYEP made him feel “like I was at home.”

When he’s not at the youth project, Darren enjoys basketball, spending time on the basketball court, and playing outside. But the sixth-grader is quick to note that one of his favorite pastimes is participating in “Rooted in Healthy Traditions,” ZYEP’s after-school program at Zuni Middle School.

When asked what he would like to do in the future, Darren is thoughtful. He says he has three top choices: He’d like to be a pediatric doctor, a paramedic, or a history teacher at the college level.

One thing is certain. This young man feels a deep connection to his culture, and he knows his community is a very special place.

“I love when we do the Zuni fair,” he reflects. “The social dances, people selling arts and crafts on the sidewalks — that all makes me feel I love my community.

It makes me feel happy that we still do our social and cultural dances, and that we don’t want to lose our language. We want to keep practicing our language and culture. That’s why I love my community.”