The Zuni Youth Enrichment Project’s 2021 Summer Camp officially came to a close on Friday, July 16 with a special end-of-camp celebration. Joining the 65 campers and their families were 19 counselors, 22-year-old Kiara Zunie among them.
Kiara served as one of three lead counselors for this year’s Summer Camp, taking on a leadership role with the counselors and supporting the ZYEP staff behind the scenes. She says it was an incredible experience.
“I’m sad camp is over,” she says. “I shed a tear or two. The little campers were so precious, and it was an honor to give them the best summer experiences possible.”
This was Kiara’s third summer as a Summer Camp counselor. She first applied for the position in 2019, drawn by her love for children and her passion for helping others.
“I learned so much, and ZYEP is a family,” she says. “Once you’re in, you’re part of that family. I’d never felt that before.
In 2020, following the eruption of the Covid pandemic, ZYEP staff took Summer Camp into the virtual space, and the counselors followed. Kiara signed on for her second stint as counselor; and, this time, she was joined by her younger brother, Koi.
“Virtual camp was new for everyone,” recalls Koi, now 18. “Kiara and I were paired together, and it was so much fun. We loved doing the online activities with the kids, and it was heartwarming to see their smiles during that difficult time.
“People were getting sick, and some kids were really struggling,” he adds. “It was very emotional. Kids are honest, and they’d tell us things. I’m glad we were there to help. And Kiara and I faced everything together. She’s part of my everyday life, my buddy, so that was really special for me.”
Kiara and Koi were born in Gallup, New Mexico. Their parents moved the family back to Zuni Pueblo when Kiara was ready to start elementary school and Koi was in daycare.
“Dad was a city firefighter, and when his radius lifted, our parents moved us back home,” Kiara explains. “Mom and Dad are both from traditional homes, and they wanted us to have what they had. We grew up in a supportive, loving home. Our parents never pushed us; they encouraged us to find our own way. I owe them so much.
“I also owe a lot to my little brother,” she says. “He’s my rock, my constant. He’s mentioned that I’m his role model, so I make sure to always give it my all. He can see that.”
All four members of the siblings’ family were deeply affected by the Covid pandemic. As they navigated such challenging circumstances together, they discovered their resiliency, and Kiara says her family has been her greatest strength.
“They’ve taught me to be grateful for what I have,” she says, “and I take every opportunity to help in any way I can, to share positivity. There’s a science to it. Positive words result in positive thoughts, which changes mindset. And you can see the weight lift.”
Kiara is preparing to share that science, developing a “positivity jar” project in the community. The jars will be filled with positive words, reminding community members — especially youth — that it’s vital to live in a positive mindset, and cherish all the good there is in the world.
“I’m excited for this to launch,” she says, “and hopefully to make a difference.”
Kiara, who holds a bachelor’s degree in social work, is planning to return to New Mexico Highlands University this fall for her master’s degree. She is aspiring to become a licensed social worker.
“I’d like to find something here at home,” she says, adding simply, “Home is where the heart is.”
As for Koi, he is traveling to Muskogee, Oklahoma, this month to start his freshman year at Bacone College. Koi was the first individual to represent Zuni in golf at the high school level, and now he will be the first at the collegiate level as well; the college recruited him to play on its golf team.
“He’s made Zuni history with golf,” Kiara says. “We as a family are so proud of him!”
At Bacone College, Koi also will pursue a degree in sports management with a minor in physical education.
“I feel really passionate about it,” Koi says. “Playing is fun, but I really like teaching and seeing young players improve.”
Reflecting on their time with ZYEP, both siblings say their Summer Camp experiences gave them valuable leadership skills. It also gave them something that’s a little harder to put into words.
“Some of our kids come from unfortunate circumstances, and they don’t have access to a lot of opportunities,” Koi explains. “Giving them this outlet for free, getting them involved… I’m just so grateful for this program.”