ZUNI, NM (Sept. 10, 2021) — Since its founding, the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project has been dedicated to honoring Zuni culture and traditional life ways in all its youth programs and spaces. One of those vital Zuni traditions is physical activity.

Through its Youth Sport initiative, the nonprofit youth organization connects with more than 500 youth annually. Not only are young people able to take advantage of seasonal leagues in basketball, soccer, flag football, and cross country, they also have access to mentorship through ZYEP’s staff and coaches, camaraderie with teammates throughout the leagues, and powerful community spirit.

Through mid-October, Youth Sport participants are busy with soccer season. According to Josh Kudrna, ZYEP’s physical activity coordinator, this season is a particularly joyful one.

“My favorite part of coordinating this soccer season is how happy the kids are to be spending time with friends, and coming back together to play a sport,” he explained. “Our kids were always excited to play, but there is a unique specialness to the joy and positivity that has been constant throughout this season. Getting to see their friends, interact with their coaches, and challenge themselves is having a huge impact on managing the stress and apathy we were seeing last year during virtual school.”

Kudrna observed that families are enjoying this healthy and safe social opportunity as well.

“It’s been great to see families excitedly greeting each other after being apart for so long, and seeing how many members of our community are coming to the games to celebrate and cheer on the younger players,” he said. “There is such a strong spirit of community here. I see it at every practice and at every game.”

Eleven-year-old Kaleb Bowannie is one of 50 players in this year’s ZYEP soccer league. He participates in all the Youth Sport programs, so he’ll shift to flag football once soccer ends.

“I love getting to run around and play the game, instead of just running around the house,” he said. “It makes me happy to see my friends again, and I made friends on the other teams too.”

“I love the free food, too,” he added with a grin. When asked how other communities might benefit from Youth Sport programs like this one, he was thoughtful.

“It would give them physical activity, so they can be healthy,” he said after a moment’s pause. “It would be so good for them.”

“As a parent, I think this program is very positive,” said Kaleb’s father, Daniel Bowannie. “Without ZYEP, many of our athletes would never have an opportunity to be part of a team, or to play soccer. It also brings players, coaches, and community together — it makes them one.”

Desiree Harjo, lead coach for ZYEP’s soccer league, agreed.

“I was born and raised in Zuni, and growing up, I didn’t have these opportunities,” she said. “ZYEP offers such a variety. I’m so appreciative for this on our reservation.”

Harjo has worked with local youth for years. She and her twin sister teach kindergarten for the Zuni Public School District, and they both coached volleyball at the high school. In addition to her coaching with ZYEP, Harjo also coaches softball for the Gallup league.

“I coached here with (now executive director) Joe Claunch a couple of years ago, and I came back this year because ZYEP was in need,” she said. “I love the teamwork and camaraderie, and how excited the kids are to get out and socialize, while also being safe; they’ve been great about wearing masks and maintaining physical distance. And, the games really do bring the community together to support our kids.”

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), and YouTube (/ZuniYouth).

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.