Zuni Youth Enrichment Project Celebrates 15 Years, Reflects on 2023 Highlights
By Native News Online Staff
The Zuni Youth Enrichment Project celebrated its 15th anniversary this year, a major milestone for a grassroots, nonprofit youth project that started in 2009 with a small summer camp for Zuni children. Now, 15 years later, ZYEP is a nationally recognized, Zuni-led organization with robust programming in physical activity, food sovereignty, art, and youth development.
That first summer camp started with just 20 participants. Today, ZYEP serves more than 1,000 young people each year and remains dedicated to building strong intergenerational relationships, increasing resilience, and providing healthy, nurturing spaces and fun, enriching programs.
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“It’s a blessing to reach this milestone,” said Tahlia Natachu-Eriacho, ZYEP’s executive director. “Our theme this year was ‘Honoring the Past and Shaping Tomorrow.’ To be raised by this organization myself, to be part of the team today, and now to have my children join ZYEP programs fills my heart — and fulfills a traditional Zuni value, that we must care for our youth and continue the traditions that make our people resilient.
“I want to express my deepest and most sincere gratitude to every person who contributed to this organization through development, feedback, trust, participation, acknowledgement, support and belief, including the incredible people who first came together in 2009 with a beautiful, innovative vision. The amount of care in this work is the reason it has such significant impact. We honor those who built ZYEP, and we will protect and carry forward their legacy for the sake of our future generations.”
Physical activity is a Zuni tradition, and to honor that, ZYEP provides a variety of Youth Sport opportunities for youth to build self-confidence, develop physical health, and forge connections with mentors and peers. The youth project started its soccer league in 2009, basketball league in 2010, and flag football league in 2016.
A 2023 highlight was the addition of a T-ball league this summer. Forty 4- and 5-year-old players learned a new sport together while their family members cheered from the sidelines; going forward, this new league will be a staple of ZYEP summer programming.
When asked what he enjoyed most about this summer’s league, Lee Lucio said, “Coming out here, getting exercise with the granddaughters (Bella and Hailey), meeting all the different parents and kids. It really was enjoyable, a lot of fun.
“Back when their mom and uncle were going to school here, we didn’t have any of these activities for the summer,” he continued. “It really helps the kids in our community to be involved in these programs here.”
Over time, ZYEP hopes to add indoor spaces for year-round sports, create a Zuni soccer league so players no longer need to travel to Gallup for games, expand culturally relevant outdoor recreation programs in collaboration with Grand Canyon National Park, and enhance the community trail system for walking, running and biking in Zuni.
Maintaining and guiding the trail initiative is the collective work of ZYEP and the Zuni Health and Wellness Coalition’s Built Environment Pillar. Established in 2012, the current trail system comprises 60 miles of free public trails; 10 trail routes connect to most residential neighborhoods, providing easy access for thousands of Pueblo of Zuni residents.
ZYEP created its first community garden in 2010, and its first nutrition lessons were held in traditional hek’ko:we (waffle gardens). Today, the youth project’s food sovereignty programs make an average of 9,000 annual contacts with youth and families through in-school, after-school and community-wide initiatives.
In addition, ZYEP provides food sovereignty internship opportunities, family garden kits, rain barrels, and a variety of workshops and classes. Together, they build the Zuni community’s ability to grow, share and be nourished by traditional Native foods, contributing to the health of the Zuni people and the continuation of sacred life ways.
“I like that ZYEP helps me learn more about our culture, and they are teaching me how to be stronger and healthier,” said Liam Poncho, 8. “And I like the healthy snacks they give me!”
“I appreciate that ZYEP gives us a place where different people from different families can get together and do projects together,” said his mother, Karen Poncho. “They always welcome you to come as you are, and remind you that it’s never too late to learn.”
In 2023, ZYEP’s food sovereignty initiatives helped the Pueblo of Zuni receive the 2023 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize, which celebrates communities at the forefront of advancing fair and just opportunities for health. Going forward, the staff dreams of larger kitchen space for cooking demonstrations, additional community gardens and fields for outdoor learning, increased water catchment systems, expansion of the ancestral Zuni food systems curriculum, and a larger capacity for harvesting, processing and distributing food resources.
Like physical activity and food sovereignty,art lies at the heart of the Zuni community. The Delapna:we Project, Emerging and Advanced Artist Apprenticeships, and art instruction through in-school, after-school and community-wide initiatives enhance Zuni youth’s capacity for self-expression and well-being, and they contribute to the preservation of Zuni language, traditions and culture.
In 2023, ZYEP enrolled 43 young people in the art apprenticeship program, which gave them opportunities to connect with master artists, build their art portfolios, show and sell their art, strengthen their financial literacy, and develop the skills necessary to build an art career.
“I sold everything I created, which was amazing,” said LaShea “Shea” Harris, who completed an Advanced Artist Apprenticeship in Zuni embroidery. “I was shocked to find such a market for this work; it’s in high demand. I understand the time and effort that goes into the work, and I have a heightened appreciation and gratitude for the garments I’ve been gifted in my own life.”
Going forward, ZYEP would like to add open studio and gallery spaces for youth, and expanded curriculum to strengthen cultural understanding of Zuni art forms, expanded apprenticeships, and needed equipment for teaching multiple art forms.
ZYEP also is dedicated to providing opportunities for youth development. A particular highlight of 2023 was concluding the first school year of “Rooted in Healthy Traditions,” the youth project’s after-school program.
Intended to serve youth in the critical years before and during middle school, this new program provides programming in art, physical activity, food sovereignty and Zuni language. During the 2022-23 school year, RHT served 100 children, and it’s on track to do the same in 2023-24.
As the year draws to a close, staff envision a future with increased internship opportunities, expanded training opportunities for both youth mentors and interns, expanded career development support, and stronger youth connections to Zuni language and culture. There is still time to support the organization as it pursues this ongoing mission in the Zuni community: Simply visit zyep.org/join-us-donate/.
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