When 24-year-old Dylan Solomon first started working with the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, he had no idea it would lead him to his passion — and light the way toward his future. In 2015, he had just graduated from high school, and he applied to be a ZYEP Summer Camp counselor.

“I saw it as something to do before college,” recalls Dylan, who was born and raised in Zuni. “It would take up my time, and I could earn some money.”

One Summer Camp turned into several. This year, Dylan commemorated his sixth summer with ZYEP, and he served as lead counselor and lead food sovereignty specialist.

“I love working with Joe, Andrea, Tahlia, and the Native Food Sovereignty team,” he says. “I got to work with the kids on different plant-based recipes. You never know what will happen! We tried black bean burgers. The kids thought it might be gross, but they tried them and liked them.”

Dylan’s work with ZYEP through its long-running Summer Camp program ignited a desire to work with children. As the years rolled along, his experiences also inspired him to focus on nutrition.

“My first major was physiology,” he says. “Then I shifted to public health. Now, I’m focused on the nutritional sciences.”

Dylan currently is a senior at the University of Arizona in Tucson, earning his Bachelor of Science degree in nutritional sciences with an emphasis in nutrition and a minor in care, health, and society. He will complete his degree program in winter 2022.

“Then I want to go home,” he says. “I want to become a nutritionist and dietitian and work with youth, raising awareness about health risks such as juvenile diabetes and obesity.”

Although he is living in Arizona at the moment, Dylan remains connected to his community and its young people. ZYEP staff member Tiana Cachini recently started a mentorship program, pairing young adults with middle and high school students; Dylan is serving as a mentor.

“I never had a role model like that,” he says. “At ZYEP, they’re bringing positive role models into kids’ lives. These counselors provide support while pushing the kids beyond their comfort zones, and the kids love them. It’s really special, having ZYEP in our community.

“They also introduce the topic of mental health in a good way,” he continues. “They prioritize it. The kids become familiar with it, understand it, and learn it’s normal to have a range of emotions.”

The mentorship runs through January. The program’s 12 to 15 mentors will meet with their assigned “mentees” once every two weeks, either in person or virtually. Mentors meet as a group every two weeks as well, so they can discuss how the program is going, provide advice, and share ideas and insight.

“It’s exciting to be part of this first group,” Dylan says. “I really want to see this blossom. It will be a huge thing in Zuni, and kids will realize they want to be a part of it. The older youth yearn for positive role models the most.”

Dylan says he is grateful for the opportunities ZYEP gave him, and for the deeper understanding it has provided for his own life’s work.

“It’s such a privilege to work with youth,” he explains. “At ZYEP, I watched the kids grow up in front of me. Actually, we grew up together. ZYEP really is all about connection, providing something we yearn for.”