Zachary James, 19, was born and raised in Zuni Pueblo. At Zuni High School, he was heavily involved in student life, from baseball and football to student council and the National Honor Society.
When Zach opted to take a gap year following graduation, he sought new ways to continue that involvement in his community. He saw a job opening for an agriculture and nutrition intern with the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, and he knew that would be just the right opportunity.
“I always loved to do things outside, like planting with my grandpa,” Zach explains. He also noted that he thought highly of ZYEP as an organization, adding, “I was in the first group of ZYEP summer campers in 2009. Over the years, I watched it expand. Then (Executive Director) Joe Claunch and (Program Manager) Andrea Pepin came in and started offering more sports and youth programs.”
As an intern, Zach focuses primarily on ZYEP’s agricultural initiatives; his fellow intern, Kenzi Bowekaty, focuses on the nutrition side. They are, he says, Nutrition Coordinator Jessica Quinlan’s support team.
“We prep and distribute wellness kits to the community, we teach the kids and cook with them, and we interview families about their gardens and rainwater collections,” Zach says.
ZYEP’s rainwater conservation program is an important one for the Zuni community, as the region has experienced persistent drought conditions for the past 20 years.
“The climate is changing fast,” Zach observes. “Lakes are drying up, and it’s getting hard for farmers and livestock.”
ZYEP distributes rain barrels to families and encourages them to collect as much water as possible. Each family has to submit an application to receive their barrel, submitting photos of their garden and a short essay describing why rainwater harvesting is so important.
“The essays are written by the young people,” Zach says. “We’ve distributed 120 rain barrels so far, and we’re going to keep building from here.”
Originally, Zach’s internship was going to end in November 2020, but ZYEP extended his contract. He continues to work with the youth project while also taking online classes with Central New Mexico Community College, pursuing a degree in physical therapy.
“When I was in high school, I wanted to be a civil engineer, but I realized how much I enjoyed working out and learning about the body,” Zach says. “So I changed my mind. At some point, I’ll move to Albuquerque to complete my degree in person. The ZYEP staff really support me in going back to school.”
Zach says he is really looking forward to the new growing season and replicating their 2020 agriculture and nutrition efforts on a bigger scale. That means more garden kits with bigger tools, more seedings in distribution, and more garden and nutrition programs at ZYEP’s 2021 Summer Camp.
“It’ll be busy,” he says. “In fall, we’ll focus on farmers’ markets with our produce in our park, and in winter, we’ll have a community-wide seed-sharing event. It gives people an opportunity to meet and trade non-GMO seeds.”
Zach says he loves getting great feedback from families and kids, especially during the Covid pandemic. With programs taking place through Zoom, entire families have the opportunity to be part of their children’s learning and growing. He also says the best part of his job is teaching these young people — the next generation of Zuni leaders and culture bearers.
“It’s incredible to see the kids’ reactions, showing them where food comes from, teaching them how to plant, and educating them about the differences between GMO and non-GMO foods,” he says. “It’s the best experience of my life.”