Imagine a place where you can feel happiness buzzing in the air, where children are at the center of a mini-universe, and all around them are four generations of family, overflowing with pride and affection. It’s a place where special people donate their time in a way that enriches their own lives as much as the children they serve. Most importantly, it is a place where Zuni culture, wisdom, and heritage are at the center. This is something you can feel from the language you hear, from the art that is all around, and from the traditional way that knowledge is being passed down- a way that instills a sense of connectedness as well as love and support by caring adults.
Many years ago, while participating in a strategic planning session for the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP), I was asked to close my eyes and think about the sights and sounds of a healthy Zuni community. To be honest, I can’t remember what came to mind at that moment, but as I take in the scene at a ZYEP Flag Football game, Summer Camp event, or any of the activities happening all year round, this is the vision that I sense before me.
As a new pediatrician at the Zuni IHS Hospital thirteen years ago, I wanted to learn about my patient’s lives. I started asking “so… what are you going to do this summer?” Despite the fact that their parents wanted more for them, the response I repeatedly heard was “nothing.” This realization led to frank conversations within the community during which we resolved to transform these lost opportunities into ones that connect Zuni youth to the foundations of health. With the help of a small grant from the American Academy of Pediatrics and numerous partnerships within the community, Zuni had its first ever summer camp for 30 youth in 2009. By deepening connections with community strengths, ZYEP recently conducted our eleventh annual summer camp for 200 kids and now reaches more than 1,000 youth annually. Last year we opened Ho’n A:won Park (meaning “for all of us”), a three-acre youth complex and community space which was designed by Zuni artists.
Over this time, we have gained insights into the importance of physical activity and nutrition within our community. First is that traditional culture and values not only have a role in youth programming, but they are also central. Our sports leagues begin by encouraging adults to use supportive Zuni language phrases as they cheer during the games. Practices begin by reviewing clan relations to show how all players are connected. Nutrition is demonstrated as a way of connecting with the food of their ancestors and as a powerful way of remaining strong.While we still have a long way to go, many of the kids I care for in the clinic today have big smiles as they tell me about what they are doing next summer.