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In roughly five weeks, the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project will kick off its 16th Annual Summer Camp for 120 children ages 6-12. At its helm as co-coordinator will be ZYEP Youth Development Leader Rani Yamutewa, who is bringing her own Summer Camp experience to the table  — as well as her lifelong love for the bountiful childhood pleasures of summertime.


Rani, 26, grew up in the Pueblo of Zuni, attending St. Anthony’s School through 8th grade and graduating from Zuni High School. She was deeply involved in athletics during her childhood years, and she says she was rarely indoors.


“I was such a tomboy,” she acknowledges with a smile. “I grew up with a brother and boy cousins, so I was always playing football and basketball, riding bikes, and only going home when the lights came on in the evenings.” 


She recalls doing extra chores to earn $10, spending that money on a gallon of water and an order of green chili cheese fries, and then taking those provisions on a daylong hike. It was, she says, a tech-free childhood. 


When ZYEP launched Summer Camp in 2009, Rani was too old to join the program as a camper. Fortunately, she found another way to get involved.


In 2014, she joined ZYEP as a Summer Camp counselor. Then a junior in high school, Rani says she was well suited to the role.


“I babysat my nephews, so I had experience with younger children,” she explains. “I excelled in academics and sports, I was extroverted, my parents raised me with good values, and they always encouraged me.” 


That first summer made such a strong impression, Rani returned as a counselor in 2015, and then again in 2017-18.


“I was blessed to be picked as a counselor during those summers,” she says. “I was so inspired by my experiences, I became Summer Camp counselor liaison in 2019. I also introduced and led a self-love camp activity, which included an exercise called Hands of Hope.”


In Hands of Hope, the kids created a series of hands, with each one representing a challenging issue. On each finger, the kids shared words of hope and healing — either positive things they could say to themselves, or supportive things they have heard.


“Through that work, I recognized the importance of social and emotional wellness, which was so impactful,” Rani recalls. “I also recognized that while I’m teaching the kids, I’m also healing myself. 


“That work really gave me a preview of what I’m doing today at ZYEP,” she continues. “The kids inspire me to create the lessons I want to share with them.” 


Rani joined the ZYEP staff as youth development leader. In 2022-23, she had the opportunity to teach the youth project’s performing arts class at Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary School; this experience prompted her to reimagine the class for the next school year.


“I have a passion for physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellness, so I pitched the idea of broadening the performing arts focus to create a holistic wellness class,” she says. “I want to interact with youth before hardships happen. I want to help prepare them so they can tackle whatever might come their way.” 


While the holistic wellness class still emphasized the performing arts (including traditional Zuni storytelling, dances and music), it also incorporated physical activity, food sovereignty education, and the “Eat Smart To Play Hard” state curriculum. Rani says she also cultivated an environment of mindfulness, reflection, honesty, kindness and validation, giving the kids space to talk and build connections.


“I teach from the heart, and as I teach them, they’re teaching me,” she says. “I had 450 students this past school year, and I loved it.” 


With the school year now at a close, Rani is looking forward to the 16th Annual Summer Camp. She also is excited to co-coordinate the program with ZYEP Youth Development Coordinator Kiara “Kiki” Zunie.


“The way you practice is the way you play,” she says. “Kiki and I are putting our hearts into this, because these young people will be the ones who take our positions one day. We want a certain kind of community for them, and for our own children, so we are taking every opportunity to instill our values, encourage optimism and a positive outlook, and build a strong foundation.”


Noting that not many kids spend much time outdoors anymore, Rani says she would like to give this year’s campers opportunities to connect with simple, tech-free activities that have appealed to children for generations. This simple fun includes physical activities and games, art, dance, gardening, outdoor exploration, field trips to interesting local sites; and, once again, self-love.


“ZYEP has invested in me and trusts me, so I am determined to give it my all,” she says. “My main goals are to be a positive role model and mentor, to build connections, and to inspire. I’ve been through Summer Camp with different leaders, and I remember all the best parts of each camp. Now I have a chance to reflect that, and give this year’s counselors and campers what they want. I’m excited to see them grow.”