ZUNI, NM (Jan. 17, 2022) — For nonprofit organizations across the country, 2020 was a year of rapid adaptation due to the onset of the Covid pandemic. For some, including the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project in Zuni, New Mexico, that unexpected shift became a springboard for new successes and growth in 2021.
This past year, ZYEP was able to bring the community’s youth back together in person for its annual Summer Camp and Youth Sport leagues. It expanded its Food Sovereignty initiative, as well as its built environment through the collaborative community trails project. And the ZYEP staff is ready for an even bigger year in 2022.
“I’m so proud of our team for persevering through the pandemic and meeting the needs of our community,” said Andrea Pepin, ZYEP’s program manager. “I am particularly proud of the 2021 Summer Camp and the 18 counselors who provided such amazing leadership to the 72 campers who participated.”
Indeed, post-camp surveys revealed that 15 percent more young people reported that they have positive role models in their lives. The surveys also showed a 21 percent increase in enjoyment of physical activity. According to Josh Kudrna, physical activities coordinator, that enthusiasm extended to the Youth Sport leagues as well.
“It was wonderful to see how families showed up for the kids,” he noted. “During our hybrid cross-country league, as lockdown restrictions loosened up a bit, the family members would run halfway out so they could jog to the finish with their runners and cheer them on. I’m excited to create more opportunities in 2022 for our young people to play and grow.”
For Kiara “Kiki” Zunie, physical activity leader, the 2021 flag football season was a major highlight. The league drew approximately 100 children ages 7 to 12, as well as 22 coaches who also served as mentors.
“The kids got to learn the fundamentals of flag football and apply those skills when playing against their peers,” Zunie said. “The coaches were encouraged to use Zuni language during the practices and at games. Every flag football player learned an average of five or six Zuni words by the end of the season!”
Last year also marked an expansion of ZYEP’s Food Sovereignty initiative. Not only did the youth project register 100 families for the growing season, it built valuable partnerships with the Zuni Utility Department and Zuni Public School District to promote water conservation.
“We distributed 100 garden kits, and 100 rain barrels for water harvesting,” said Zachary James, water conservation specialist. “This year, I’m looking forward to possibly partnering with more Zuni organizations to promote water conservation — and hopefully to make it possible in a majority of Zuni family homes.”
Family Cook Nights were a significant part of the Food Sovereignty initiative in 2021. ZYEP gave out 15 cooking kits at each of the five events, which collectively could serve up to 75 people.
“Family Cook night was my favorite highlight from last year,” said ZYEP’s Brittny Seowtewa, who works on the Food Sovereignty initiative. “The pandemic caused isolation between families and the community, something that is unfamiliar to us. Family Cook Night allowed families to safely come together to cook, eat, and reconnect with one another. I loved seeing the youth take the lead and guide their families through the recipes. My favorite part was when families would show their creations. It was such a heartwarming thing to experience.
“I’m really looking forward to the 2022 growing season,” she continued. “Every year, this initiative grows, and I am eager to see even more gardens growing in the community and more households harvesting rain.”
Another significant expansion involved the next steps in a collaborative trail renovation project. Last year, ZYEP and its partners added the 4.5-mile Bluebird Trail and the 3.5-mile Mountain Bluebird Trail, established 11 trailheads, added 48 safety signs, and developed 40 additional mileage and wayfinding signs.
“The collaboration and partnership with Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps was a big highlight for me,” said Enric Tsalate, built environment coordinator. “The project was carried out by two ZYEP employees and a five-person crew ages 19 to 29, all Zuni tribal members. The youth learned the basics of carpentry — how to read a measuring tape, for example, and how to use power tools safely. Then they learned more advanced skills such as cutting procedures, layout, and framing.
“We met our goal of promoting professional development through on-the-job training and service-based learning,” he added. “In addition, two Zuni artists created all the artwork for the trailhead signage. I’m really looking forward to completing the trail renovation project in 2022!”
What matters most to the ZYEP staff, they say, is that the organization was able to bring joy and comfort during what Zunie called “a journey through uncertainty.” In the process, they learned a lot about what was possible — and a lot about themselves.
“I learned so much about how one copes with change,” Zunie reflected. “Nearly every day, I would discover something new about myself that was the result of adapting to the present. But through the tribulations, I finally opened myself to healing and happiness. Here is where I found my purpose, and I found myself doing what I love the most, helping our youth.”
Throughout the year, Zunie brings ZYEP’s mission to schoolchildren at Shiwi Tsana Elementary. In her role as physical activity leader, she taught the kids how to ride bikes, play sports, and play active games like freeze tag.
“Their smiles, laughter, and beaming eyes remind me that ZYEP has an important purpose,” she said. “Our purpose is to provide youth with a genuine, positive support system that will help them live healthy lives with optimism. When I think of 2022, I sense great things to come. ZYEP is going to expand in many positive ways, and I cannot wait to see it.”
To learn more about the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project and its programs, and for information about making donations, partnering with ZYEP, and volunteering, call (505) 782-8000 or visit zyep.org. And, to stay up to date on the latest news and events, follow the nonprofit youth organization on Facebook (/zuniyouthenrichmentproject), Instagram (@zuniyouthenrichmentproject), YouTube (/ZuniYouth), and TikTok (@zyep09).
Founded in 2009, the nonprofit Zuni Youth Enrichment Project is dedicated to promoting resilience among Zuni youth so they will grow into strong, healthy adults who are connected with Zuni traditions. ZYEP fulfills its mission by providing positive role models, enriching programs, and nurturing spaces that contribute to the healthy development of Zuni youth. ZYEP strives to provide every child with the encouragement and opportunities they need to reach their full potential.