When Tre’ Riley was growing up in the Pueblo of Zuni, New Mexico, his little brother attended the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project’s Summer Camp. It was the first time Tre’ heard about the nonprofit organization, and while he was impressed with its work, he didn’t become a camper himself.
In fact, ZYEP didn’t become part of his life until after high school graduation. During summer 2017, as he was in the midst of earning his associate’s degree from Gillette College in Wyoming, Tre’ found himself searching for something more.
“I received a track and field scholarship to Gillette College, but I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Tre’ recalls. “I knew I wanted to do something for my community. I took an elective class called Foundations of Education, and it gave me this idea that I could work with kids.”
Tre’ applied to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he planned to start working toward a degree in education. In the meantime, he returned to Zuni and finally went to Summer Camp — as a counselor.
“I was responsible for seven or eight kids, engaging them in activities, talking and connecting with them, letting them open up, and helping to guide them,” he says. “I really enjoyed working with them and with my co-counselors, who were all amazing people.”
When Tre’ arrived in Albuquerque in fall 2017, he was ready to focus on his degree program. Physical education, in particular, proved to be a perfect fit.
“I’ve been active my whole life, as long as I can remember,” he says. “I loved my bike, being outside, anything that got my heart rate up. It was a way to connect with family and friends. I also ran as a kid, and we had a lot of events in Zuni; my parents or grandparents would sign me up.”
The Shiwi Baseball League was a particular passion. Tre’ played in the league from age 7 to age 12, and he says it gave him some of the “most fun times” of his life. He went on to run cross-country and play basketball in high school, all four years, and he ran track his senior year as well.
“I really credit my family for that,” he reflects. “My whole family values exercise and being outside.”
With that background, and his new degree program at UNM, a new dream began to coalesce for Tre’. He wants to teach young people how to lead healthier, more active lives, and someday, he aspires to operate his own gym.
“Too many kids have negative associations with exercise,” he explains. “It needs to be taught in a different way, and that needs to change everywhere. Even teachers are still learners. We’re discovering new and innovative ways to approach physical activity. Physical education isn’t just about the body. It’s about the mind-body connection.”
Tre’ has just two classes remaining in his degree program, and then he will apply for his teaching license. Ultimately, he’d like to come back to Zuni to pursue his long-term dream.
“That’s how I can give back,” he says. “Since 2017, I’ve learned so much about how important physical activity is for young kids, especially as a coping strategy — for stress management, for example. Here in Zuni, we have a huge focus on sports, but they are not the end-all, be-all. I want to be inclusive, and help kids find what they enjoy so they can take care of themselves now and after high school.”
Tre’ observes that physical education can play a major role in addressing local challenges with diabetes, obesity, and mental health. The key, he says, is to teach children from a young age.
“It’s all about planting seeds, providing access, and encouraging kids to never sell themselves short,” he says. “That’s how you effect change. That’s community development.”
When Tre’ looks back at his journey so far, he credits ZYEP for the role it has played in that journey. He returned to the Summer Camp program as a counselor in 2018 and ’19, and in 2022, he served as one of its lead counselors.
“They’ve helped me so much through the trainings they’ve provided, the way they conduct their programming, and the way they relate to the kids,” he says. “And it’s all through the lens of the Zuni cultural perspective. Everything I’ve gained, I bring to my career in education, and I teach my campers what I’ve learned at UNM. It’s a circle.”
After a pause, he adds, “It’s amazing how it all comes full circle.”