As August draws to a close, young people are heading back to school — including rising freshmen at the country’s colleges and universities. Among them is Matthew Cornelius Jr., a Zuni youth who is now attending Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona.

Born and raised in Zuni, Matthew attended our ZYEP Summer Camp and various Youth Sport leagues starting at age 8. He took a shine to baseball and eventually became ace pitcher for his Albuquerque school, leading St. Pius to a 15-2 season in his senior year.

Pima Community College recruited Matthew for its baseball team, and he was named 2021 Gatorade New Mexico Baseball Player of the Year. In addition to the Gatorade trophy, Matthew also received $1,000 for a charity of his choice. He chose ZYEP.

“ZYEP was my first choice for the donation, because they bring the community together,” he explains. “They build connections between coaches, counselors, and kids, and give the kids older people to look up to.”

Today’s Youth Sport initiative at ZYEP includes basketball, soccer, flag football, and cross-country running leagues, as well as in-school physical activities in partnership with local schools. These dynamic programs connect staff members and coaches with more than 500 Zuni youth and their families each year.

“There’s really nothing else in Zuni that’s like that,” Matthew notes. “Positive role models can be hard to find. Kids really look forward to being with their friends and mentors at ZYEP. I was one of those kids, and I still talk to those people, to this day.”

Matthew is the youngest of three children. His two older sisters also attended ZYEP programs and eventually served as Summer Camp counselors. One sister is attending Dartmouth University right now; she plans to become a teacher and return home to serve her community. The other sister works at the Zuni Comprehensive Health Center with their mother, while their father works for the Zuni Public School District.

In addition to playing baseball at Pima Community College, Matthew also will be pursuing a degree in architecture. He says it’s a natural fit for him.

“I’ve always been a math person,” he explains. “I’ve always loved building, and putting my mind to things.”

Recalling his time with ZYEP, Matthew says he appreciated the connections with culture and community that were at the heart of every activity.

“I remember going on Friday hikes to the Zuni Mountains and other special sites,” he reflects. “I really cherish those memories.”