Success Story: Building Capacity and Changing Lives at Zuni

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The Zuni Youth Enrichment Project began in 2006 after a pediatrician named Tom Faber, MD, MPH, came to work at the Zuni Indian Health Service Hospital. Every year, he would ask his young patients, “What are you doing this summer?” And he repeatedly heard, “I’m not doing anything.”

Recognizing the importance of positive activities and role models in children’s lives, Dr. Faber started asking more questions and ascertaining interest in the community. From there what developed was a long-standing 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to providing healthy summers and healthy futures for Zuni children, backed by the values and traditions of the Zuni culture.

This three-part feature (with installments in this and the next two newsletters) tells the story of the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, its mission and programs, and how it has fostered relationships and leveraged funding to grow from hosting one small camp to becoming an artistic landmark and a formal hub for the Zuni artist community.



The Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP) was developed for children, in an environment where youth services were both lacking and needed.

The Zuni Pueblo main reservation in New Mexico lies 150 miles west of Albuquerque on 450,000 acres, making it the largest of the 19 New Mexico Pueblos. According to a community profile, the poverty rate here is over 35 percent, more than double the 12.3 percent national rate, and half of all households have children under the age of 18.

As a Native community, the people of Zuni Pueblo face challenges common in Indian Country. The Indian Health Service reports that American Indians continue to die at higher rates than other Americans due to issues including homicide, diabetes, chronic liver disease and suicide.

And according to the National Congress of American Indians, over the last 10 years, Native students have been the only population to show no improvement in reading or math grades. In addition, they experience some of the lowest high school graduation rates – in many states less than 50 percent of Native students get a high school diploma.

At the same time, Zuni Pueblo is in a position to counter these challenges by drawing from its rich heritage. Zuni Pueblo is one of the longest continually inhabited areas in North America, and Zunis have lived in the area for thousands of years. Seventy-five percent of the community speaks the Zuni language and the whole community recognizes and celebrates Zuni holidays.

A Place for Kids to Thrive

Dr. Faber recognized that nurturing kids’ identity as Zuni youth would go far in fostering pride and confidence in who they are. It would give them a sense of belonging and heritage that could offset the negative impacts of poverty, obesity, diabetes, substance abuse and youth suicide.

DSCN1114 500pxHe began by reaching out to the community. Was there interest? Were there roadblocks? What could be done? What developed from there was the first ZYEP summer camp in 2009. Its goals were to provide kids with safe summers where they could learn new things, make friends and have fun, but also take part in empowering and enriching activities that would connect them with the Zuni traditions.

Dr. Faber recalls, “From the first day of our 2009 Summer Camp, we knew we were on the right track. The joy on the kids’ faces, the excitement of the parents, and the way our community partners came together to create high-quality activities was truly inspirational. From that day on, I think we were all energized to do whatever it took to be a consistent, positive presence for Zuni youth.”

A Foundation for Success

From the initial camp, ZYEP sought funding and opportunities to continue to grow, including from First Nations Development Institute’s Native Youth and Culture Fund and First Nations’ Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative. ZYEP also became a partner in First Nations’ pilot initiative, which increased the organization’s exposure and improved its development efforts.

DSCN3375 500pxAs ZYEP established momentum, it grew from having a series of summer camps to an entire programmatic approach for kids ages 5 to 18. The project runs the Hoopz Youth Basketball League, which stands for Healthy Options, Organized Play Zuni, along with baseball, flag football and soccer. The project also leads after-school programs, organizes community gardens, and partnered with the Zuni Health and Wellness Coalition to create over 50 miles of walking, running and biking trails.

Through all activities and programs, ZYEP has incorporated the Zuni approach. For example, youth mentors training to be ZYEP camp counselors gain special access to archeological sites and Native areas. ZYEP trails and playgrounds incorporate motivational Zuni symbols. And, in the community gardens, families reconnect with Zuni practices regarding agriculture and water conservation.

By reflecting the Zuni culture in every aspect of operations, ZYEP has created a place of pride for Zuni children. They see the resilience of the Zuni people and they learn the respect for Zuni ways and tradition, which all build confidence in who they are.

DSCN0045 500pxIt’s a mindset and pride in identity that Joseph Claunch, Ph.D, now co-director of ZYEP, knew was important since he first worked for ZYEP as a coach in 2012. “I recognized oftentimes that when our Zuni teams played non-Native schools, our kids lost confidence. We were beating ourselves,” he says.

Claunch left ZYEP to pursue his doctorate in Sport and Exercise Psychology. When he returned to ZYEP in 2016, Dr. Claunch joined Dr. Faber to use what he learned to further ZYEP’s mission.

Measurable Impact

Today, ZYEP now reaches over 700 kids, a record high. ZYEP participants report greater psychological well-being, and according to the ZYEP newsletter:

  • ZYEP participants report making on average eight new friends and identifying three new caring adults during their sport season.
  • 89 percent of youth participants say ZYEP is helping them live a healthier lifestyle.
  • 93 percent of participants’ parents say ZYEP is helping improve their child’s overall health.
  • 90 percent of parents report that ZYEP is helping their families feel more connected to the Zuni community.

Further benefits of ZYEP are evident in the voices of the children it serves.

little dancerFor example, ZYEP participant Kelly says her educational career started at ZYEP. As a camp counselor, she would attend retreats where teens were encouraged to discuss what they wanted to accomplish in life. She says she gained inspiration and mentorship, which gave her the tools to get her bachelor’s degree in exercise science and now pursue her doctorate. “ZYEP gave me the confidence to step out of my comfort zone and to help serve others,” she says.

Indeed, since Dr. Faber first began asking his patients about their summer plans, ZYEP has changed the landscape of youth opportunities. Through the years, it has built on success and opened new pathways in funding, building on the cultural strengths of the Zuni people, and improving more youth outcomes with every season. This has led ZYEP to its most recent accomplishment: A multi-purpose community center and park with an environment that elevates the visibility of Zuni culture and art.

By Amy Jakober

Part 2 of this series will highlight the new Ho’n A:wan Park. It will appear in the March/April 2019 issue of Indian Giver.

4 thoughts on “Success Story: Building Capacity and Changing Lives at Zuni

  1. Pingback: Success Story Part 2: Room to Run, Play & Thrive at Zuni | indiangiver

  2. The Fabers and others are doing such great work. We have had the privilege of giving them very modest support over the years and were fortunate enough to attend the grand opening for the Community Park last fall…What a great event and a resource that will impact kids for years to come. Congratulations to Dr Tom and wife Kate and others…jim and sandy heuerman

  3. Pingback: Success Story Part 3: An Artist Community | indiangiver

  4. I am a Zuni Pueblo community member and parent of two children who have participated in the summer camps as well as the soccer and basketball programs. I love the opportunity our youth and families have to participate in the activities ZYEP has to offer. I appreciate the vision the groups founders had and the continued collaborations members of our community are given.

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