When Kaleia Vicenti attended ZYEP’s first Summer Camp in 2009, she was just 7 years old. She didn’t know what to expect; her family didn’t either. They couldn’t have imagined that those engaging summer weeks would turn into an enduring relationship with the youth project, one that would have a lasting impact on three generations of the Vicenti family.
Kaleia, now an 18-year-old freshman and collegiate runner at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, recalls that she enjoyed learning about nutrition and the Zuni language at Summer Camp — and she fell in love with the physical education activities. She soon transitioned to ZYEP’s Youth Sport programs, playing soccer, basketball, and even football.
“The first year of soccer, we lost every game,” remembers Stephanie Vicenti, Kaleia’s mother, with a laugh. “We had no clue how to cheer, or how the game was played. But we learned a new sport with each other. We’ve gotten close with all the families. It’s been exciting to watch each other’s kids grow.”
The youth also became close as they learned, played, competed, and strengthened their connection to Zuni culture together. Many, including Kaleia, have returned to Summer Camp to serve as counselors for the younger children coming up behind them.
“I learned how to be a leader at ZYEP,” Kaleia says. “We all learned how to become one, to have faith in our prayers, to know where we come from and who we are.”
According to Stephanie, Kaleia idolized her summer camp counselor, local high school athlete Tahlia Natachu, when she was a child. She watched Tahlia graduate from high school, earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and return to ZYEP to serve as youth development coordinator. It made a powerful impression.
“These kids are paving the way for each other,” Stephanie says. “They’re teaching the younger kids never to give up on what you truly believe in and love.”
“When I think about how Tahlia impacted my life, I want to do that for someone else,” Kaleia reflects. “To teach, to learn and grow with them, and to pass down what we know to the next generation. They’re the leaders of tomorrow.”
Kaleia’s younger sister, 12-year-old Mykeia, is one of the younger children following in her footsteps. After years of watching from the sidelines, she is now active in ZYEP sports as well. She tried basketball first, but she didn’t stop there.
Mykeia just completed her fall cross-country season, earning first place in all seven meets. She also loves soccer, as well as the bonds she has forged with her teammates.
“I consider most of them family,” she says. “All these activities have helped me feel connected to my community. Everybody gets together, and you get close with all the activities you do together.”
Kaleia agrees, noting, “It’s amazing to see how much of our community is involved in ZYEP. People come back year after year, and I love them always being behind me, still supporting me, loving me. I want to give back; that’s what motivates me. I want to be successful for my family and my people.”
Coleen Vicenti, the girls’ grandmother, says all of her grandchildren have now gone through ZYEP programs. She got involved as well, signing on as a youth basketball coach in 2009.
“There were times when I was the soccer mom, the practice grandma,” she says with a laugh. “I’m the biggest cheerleader. I helped with the theater program, curriculum development, and teaching our Zuni ways — especially gardening.”
Stephanie says the success with ZYEP’s Food Sovereignty initiative was eye-opening. Through caring for the plants and harvesting the crops, Zuni youth and their families engaged deeply with Zuni traditions and life ways.
“The kids learned our traditions and heritage, who we are as Zuni people,” she says. “Building that strong foundation is important to us. With your help, we’re strengthening who they are, and I’m grateful for that.
“This community lacks extracurricular resources and outlets for students,” she continues. “ZYEP helps them grow together and learn from each other. Kids need to know there’s another safe place for them besides school, where positive role models and mentors are there to listen and guide them, and provide solutions to cope with things.”
In addition, ZYEP partners with the Zuni Public School District to offer programs in the classroom. According to Stephanie, this also is a vital service for the community.
“It benefits the kids who can’t do Summer Camp or participate in the Youth Sport leagues,” she explains. “You provide access through the schools.”
“We’re so glad you’re here, supporting our kids,” Stephanie says. “I’m a supportive mom, and I’ve aligned my expectations with yours to help me raise them. I always let people know how wonderful ZYEP has been for our family.”
Coleen says simply, “You are family.”