Native-specific active lifestyle stories were created to share what’s working in Indian Country.

During the spring and summer of 2017, NB3F worked with James Bell Associates to conduct in-depth interviews with three of NB3F’s community partners (grantees): Inter Tribal Sports (CA), the STAR School (AZ), and the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (NM).

We are honored to share the stories of three community partners that utilize the strengths of their communities to increase youth participation in physical activities. The active lifestyle stories describe (1) the evolution of the programs or initiatives, (2) the resources each program needed, and (3) the impact the programs had on their children, youth, and community. For more information about the featured community partners or their programs, please contact Michelle Gutierrez at

The second story in this series features the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project(ZYEP), a nonprofit organization created to ensure future Zuni generations are healthy and able to continue the traditions of the Zuni culture.13ZYEP serves the Zuni Pueblo, which encompasses approximately 450,000 acres in the western part of New Mexico.14The ZYEP team includes 5 passionate staff members who are supported by more than 15 community partners and countless volunteers.




An Unexpected Start


As a pediatrician at Zuni Hospital in 2006, Dr. Tom Faber noticed a concerning trend. When he asked patients about their plans for the summer, most said they didn’t have any. Only a few patients mentioned playing outside. Driven by these responses—and his knowledge of the medical and behavioral impact of a sedentary lifestyle—Dr. Faber met with members of the Zuni community about the lack of activities for children and youth. Their conversations led to the start of ZYEP in 2008.


In less than a decade, ZYEP has evolved beyond planning summer activities to organizing year-round athletic and leadership opportunities—and major infrastructure projects like trail networks and recreational facilities—for the Zuni community. Just as a desire to listen spurred Dr. Faber to meet with community members in 2006, ZYEP today seeks input from local parents, residents, and Zuni tribal council members to learn what projects can have the greatest impact and stay true to Zuni culture. The result is an ongoing collaboration that builds on the Zuni people’s strengths, resources, and rich traditions, while promoting community and youth engagement.


Fighting Summer Boredom


In 2009, ZYEP hosted its first summer camp to offer fun, enriching activities to Zuni children while also teaching them about their culture. Camp organizers use the land and community resources to teach skills like traditional Zuni gardening, pottery, and dance, and the history and importance of Zuni land.


ZYEP also involves local teens and young adults by hiring them as camp counselors. The experience is a “really important leadership opportunity for them, a chance for them to be mentors and positive role models, [and] also to see themselves as the leaders they could be,” said Dr. Faber, who now serves as ZYEP’s codirector. Before camp begins, counselors participate in intensive wilderness retreats where they learn leadership skills, reflect on their life experiences, and discuss how they can support Zuni children. For one counselor, hiking the Grand Canyon taught her the importance of teamwork: “No one was leaving each other behind, and everyone was helping each other.”


Camp attendance has grown steadily since 2009, with more than 140 participants aged 6–12 enrolled in 2017. To meet the community’s changing needs, ZYEP seeks feedback from participants and their parents each year to continue refining the 5-week camp.


Thinking Beyond Camp


An overwhelmingly positive response to ZYEP’s first camp motivated the team to pursue year-round programming. Parents saw their children enjoying themselves each day and began asking for activities beyond the summer months. To respond to this need, ZYEP launched a youth soccer program that has evolved into an intramural sports league for soccer, basketball, baseball, and flag football. Teams practice and play against one another 2 to 3 seasons per year, with more than 200 children aged 6–12 enrolling in a typical season.


ZYEP opens the league to children of all skills and abilities. The result is an inclusive environment where kids feel comfortable trying their best, building confidence, making friends, and developing positive life skills. Like the ZYEP summer camp, the sports league brings in coaches from the community, typically young adults or parents of participants. Many go beyond their basic coaching responsibilities to serve as “aunties and uncles” for their teammates and to create a network of support for other coaches. One coach described her involvement as “the coolest thing that has ever happened” to her, noting she especially looks forward to coaches’ meetings and game days.


Many coaches also incorporate Zuni language and tradition into their games and practice. One coach encourages her team to adapt traditional practices for bringing good luck, such as waking up early with the sun on game days and stepping onto the court or field before competing.


Creating Spaces That Support Healthy Living


After seeing how past programs brought together Zuni residents of all ages, ZYEP began asking parents, the Zuni tribal council, and other community members how else it could support children and families. One strategy they successfully used to identify community needs was dot-mapping. This process involves ZYEP setting up displays at local events with a list of potential projects such as a new sports field or a performing arts space. Attendees place dots next to their top choices, thus creating a visual representation of their preferences. One common response was the need for safe spaces to exercise, including well-maintained playgrounds and running areas free of stray dogs.


With the support of local organizations, ZYEP broke ground on a network of trails that now measures 60 miles. Each trail features a Zuni name and saying, artistic trailheads, and half-mile markers so users can monitor the distance traveled. According to Dr. Faber, the trails are in “great locations, where after just a couple of minutes you look around and you can’t see any cars or buildings . . . it’s really gorgeous.” Community members agree and have been using the trails regularly for family walks, organized hikes, and fun runs.

ZYEP is in the midst of other infrastructure projects as well. These include a community center that will be built on 3 acres of land donated by the Zuni tribal council. Phase one of the construction project will include a turf soccer field, multipurpose field, performing arts space, basketball court, walking trail, and indoor facility for offices and conferences. Community artists are playing a significant role in the development of this space to ensure it reflects Zuni art and culture.


Looking Ahead


Capturing the impact of ZYEP is important to the Zuni community. For its sports league, ZYEP asked parents whether their child was healthier or more physically fit after participating. Staff have also conducted pre- and post-camp surveys with youth to understand whether the amount of physical activity they engaged in at home increased after participating.


Going forward, ZYEP hopes to strengthen its evaluation to collect other data that will be useful to the program, youth, and community. This may include measuring fitness and health before participating in ZYEP programs and/or measuring young people’s level of physical activity throughout their participation in ZYEP. Staff believe these measurements can be used to help young people reach their personal goals and feel proud of their improvements.


Dr. Faber is also interested in creating personalized stories for participants as a way to depict their journey with ZYEP over the years. These stories might include the health and activity data for the child and pictures of his or her participation in different ZYEP activities. He hopes these stories can be shared with families as a way of engaging them in ZYEP and celebrating their child’s progress.


Dr. Faber also wants to build resiliency and coping skills among participants to help offset the challenges many Native Americans face and to assess how those qualities can be affected by the work of ZYEP and his hospital staff. Promoting healthy lives for Zuni children and youth, he said, starts by “acknowledging the stuff kids experience . . . [and ensuring] they feel good about themselves [and] they grow up in a place where they feel like people care about them and love them.”


As it has since its creation, ZYEP will seek input from Zuni residents to inform the work ahead. Dr. Faber’s spirit of listening continues on, to the benefit of Zuni children, youth, and adults all engaging in healthier lifestyles.


Here are some of the ways ZYEP has made a difference in the Zuni Pueblo:


  • Engaging residents—ZYEP seeks the feedback of the Zuni community—including children and youth, parents, community members, and Zuni tribal council members—to ensure programming meets their needs and interests. The organization also enlists the talents of residents, such as community artists, to pull from existing resources. Dr. Faber recalled that when he first reached out to community members about launching a summer camp, they were “really eager to help, and because there are so many amazing strengths in Zuni, there were also lots of things they had to contribute.”
  • Encouraging healthy habits—One of Dr. Faber’s original goals for ZYEP was giving youth options beyond sedentary activities like video games or high-risk behaviors like substance use. He also wanted to compel kids to make more healthful choices, a desire echoed by a Zuni mom with a family history of diabetes. After ZYEP, she has found that her children encourage each other to be healthy through friendly competition. Past “contests” include seeing who has eaten the most vegetables, who has played outside the longest, and who has consumed the most water.
  • Fostering respect for Zuni culture and traditions—Whether encouraging camp counselors to honor the deer they encounter during their wilderness retreats or stopping activities, so attendees can take part in religious ceremonies, ZYEP is mindful of Zuni cultural practices and takes initiative to help them thrive. When asked if she felt like ZYEP’s programming connected youth to Zuni culture or tradition, a parent and head coach said, “Having Zuni counselors . . . talking in their Native language, it helps [the kids] to say or think, ‘Hey it’s okay to speak my Zuni language.’”
  • Building confidence—ZYEP activities are designed for everyone, regardless of skill or ability, so participants can grow their confidence and discover new interests. In one family, for example, an older sister discovered her love for coaching, while her little sister now dreams of playing for the U.S. women’s national soccer team. The older sister said that when someone can say, “Oh, I am trusting you with my kid—here you go,” her confidence goes up, and that is one of the reasons why she loves coaching.
  • Providing positive role models—Enlisting coaches and counselors from the community connects children, youth, and adults around a shared interest. ZYEP staff also serve as role models. One mother noted Youth Development Coordinator Joseph Claunch has served as an extraordinary role model for her sons and the Zuni high school football team by using his college degree to help his community.
  • Teaching life skills­—ZYEP builds life skills such as collaboration and responsibility into all aspects of its programming. One Zuni mother feels ZYEP has helped her sons learn to be good friends to their teammates. She also credits the organization with helping teens embrace their unique identities. One youth participant said ZYEP has helped her develop socially, giving her the space to be more outgoing and confident. She feels ZYEP helps youth discover new passions they wouldn’t have explored otherwise, like playing soccer.
  • Bringing families together—By welcoming participants of all ages in a variety of roles, ZYEP brings together family members as teammates, coaches, and counselors. Indeed, one youth participant said soccer and basketball brought her and her brother closer together. “It was nice,” she said. “I had never really spent time with him that much until we all came together as sports team members . . . pretty interesting. You know, I live with them forever, but I hardly knew them because we hardly saw each other . . . but when it came to [sports], we came together. It was pretty nice.”
  • Expanding the perception of Zuni—The Zuni people are known for their running ability, but ZYEP is establishing a Zuni presence in the regional soccer community as well. As one coach said about her team, “It’s different and it’s good to see Native kids try different kinds of sports. Something that people are probably like, ‘Well that’s more suited for other people . . . like people who live in the cities and suburbs’ . . . you never expect the reservation to have soccer teams . . .Sometimes people don’t know where Zuni is when you go out [to] places . . . but now they’re bringing them out on the map, so I’m super proud of them.”