In Zuni, New Mexico, Zuni children and teens are getting opportunities to explore their heritage, an experience that is increasing their self-esteem and helping them see new opportunities for the future.
“It means so much for these kids to know who they are and where they’re from,” said Zowie Banteah-Yuselew, program coordinator for the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP). “It lets them know they have a purpose greater than themselves.”
Since 2012, First Nations Institute (First Nations) has fostered this purpose, granting almost $120,000 to ZYEP through the First Nations Native Youth and Culture Fund and the Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative.
With this funding, ZYEP has made it possible for more than 500 children to benefit from sports, summer camps, after-school programs, community gardens, trails and playgrounds throughout the community. ZYEP programs and projects not only engage children and youth in a positive environment, they have a direct impact on key challenges faced in the Zuni community.
According to Banteah-Yuselew, many Zuni youth — like other young Native populations across the country — deal with pressures of not having quality role models and influences, not identifying with their ancestry, and not being able to communicate effectively. These pressures can leave Zuni youth vulnerable to issues such as childhood obesity, suicide, teenage pregnancy and substance abuse. ZYEP works to restore Zuni cultural ties and reestablish core values in the community, which can protect at-risk youth.
“Through our programs, we give them a positive atmosphere, a sense of camaraderie and a safe place to learn, grow and move forward,” Banteah-Yuselew said. “Students end up being more comfortable. They learn to have pride in their heritage.”
Creating Places of Safety and Culture
ZYEP projects reach Zuni children who may not have safe, culturally enriching places to go when they’re not in school. After school and on weekends, ZYEP students take part in activities that keep them active and help them develop a deeper connec
tion with their culture through activities like storytelling, hiking, fishing and gardening. During three sports seasons a year, more than 160 ZYEP children get an opportunity to play basketball, baseball
and soccer, nurturing their self-esteem and laying the groundwork for a healthy adulthood.
In addition, every summer, up to 70 children attend ZYEP summer camp to participate in sports and crafts and learn about nutrition, health and traditional Zuni practices. Through all ZYEP programs and activities, children are able to learn and interact in a safe, supervised environment that is rich in Zuni culture and heritage.
Leading the summer camp are 17 youth mentors, who are hired and trained by ZYEP. To become camp counselors, teens must go through a selective application and interview process.
“Many youth in our community do not have a means to obtain summer jobs,” said Dr. Valory Wangler, ZYEP director of development. “Through the process of applying to work at ZYEP summer camp, teens practice skills that are critical for their career development and for their future success.”
Youth mentors also go on a weekend leadership trip, which immerses them in training to become counselors and lets them explore places of their ancestry, often getting special access to archeological sites and Native areas based on their heritage. Banteah-Yuselew said the experience helps youth form a positive group of peers. It also deepens their connections with their culture, giving them a sense of identity and confidence in what they can achieve. She said many youth mentors go on to work in education and youth development on their own or return to lead ZYEP programs.
ZYEP programs foster a healthy, active lifestyle for children, and have a measurable impact. After the 2014 summer camp, reports show children had an increase in physical activity of 10 minutes per day, a decrease in soda consumption of 9.3 ounces per day, and overall improvements in strength and performance.
Kaleia Vicenti, a student who is involved in many ZYEP programs, said, “ZYEP helps me stay active. If we didn’t have these programs we would always be inside watching TV.”
Moreover, ZYEP recognizes that healthy kids make healthy families and healthy communities. The organization builds trails and playgrounds with motivational Zuni symbols, creating spaces that promote physical activity in a culturally affirming environment. The program also engages families in caring for a community garden, and helps them reconnect with Zuni practices in farming and water conservation.
Support from First Nations has helped position ZYEP for ongoing growth. ZYEP is a partner in First Nations’ Native Giving.org initiative, which has increased the organization’s exposure and improved development efforts. With its bolstered infrastructure, ZYEP has been able to identify additional donors and receive a $3 million grant from ArtPlace America to incorporate arts and culture into its community development work.
“Through First Nations, our impact has grown with every grant,” said Banteah-Yuselew. “We’ve also been able to take advantage of monthly check-ins, professional development conferences, and networking opportunities to share best practices.”
Wangler added, “First Nations has made a tremendous difference in helping ZYEP get the word out, continue and expand our programs, and ultimately reach more youth.”
Learn more about the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project at www.zyep.org.
By Amy Jakober