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Zuni Pueblo Model Paves Way For Healthy Kids

Scene from Frozen Planet, airing during March and April on the Discovery Channel.

Zuni youth at the summer camp

“What are you doing this summer?”

If you asked the kids of the Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico today, many of them would tell you they are enrolled in summer camp through the Tribe and are having fun playing soccer or basketball or gardening.

This wasn’t the case four years ago, before a group of Zuni community members sat down and asked the same question. The answer then was that the kids were watching TV or playing video games—there were not a lot of opportunities for kids to live an active, healthy life.

“Over half of Zuni Pueblo’s school age kids—from 6 to 12—are overweight or obese. That is twice the national average. The diabetes rate is three times the national average with a lifetime prevalence of 65 percent,” said Dr. Tom Faber, a pediatrician and director of the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP).

Today, with the support of the community and the 2008 establishment of ZYEP, a non-profit organization, the Zunis are seeing positive changes in the physical fitness and health behaviors of kids.

ZYEP has already introduced several successful programs over the years, and starting this fall, it will launch an extensive after school program for sixth graders.

“We have been able to enroll between 300 to 400 kids in activities that promote Zuni culture and engage kids in positive activities throughout the year,” said Faber.

The new program: “Developing Youth: Mentoring Empowerment Self-expression Achievement” (DY-MESA) is modeled after the CAS-Carrera—a year-round, after-school program for high school students geared at preventing adolescent pregnancy, with a successful track record.

“The DY-MESA was established a year ago. It was funded by a federal government grant for pregnancy prevention but our philosophy is not to try to prevent anything but to instill in Zuni kids a belief that they have a positive and valuable future ahead of them,” said Faber.

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The acronym, Faber said, also refers to Dowa Yalanne, or Corn Mountain, a mesa and source of the strength for the Zuni Pueblo.

Faber and Dr. Valory Wangler, director of development for ZYEP, will attend the “Advancing Native Health and Wellness” conference, July 31 to August 5, in Anchorage, Alaska. Wangler is sharing some of the best practices at the event held by the Association of American Indian Physicians in partnership with the University of Hawaii—the Center for Native Pacific Health Disparities Research.

Faber said that the program entails 15 hours of weeklong after-school commitment from sixth graders—meaning two hours each week day, Monday to Friday, and several hours on Saturday.

“Our goal is to enroll Zuni kids entering sixth grade this fall. We are offering it to everybody,” said Faber, adding that they will guide the development of the sixth graders (ages 10-12) until they finish school in six years.

Pre-enrollment has started this summer, said Faber, who expects about 80 kids to sign up for ZYEP by mid August. There are more than 1,000 school kids in the entire Zuni Pueblo—some 850 are in elementary and middle school and about 200 are in high school.

In preparation for the program this fall, future DY-MESA participants recently went on a three-night camping trip to Camp Asaayi on the Navajo Nation, where they learned to canoe, set up camp, wake up with the sunrise and work as a team.

Another trip, made possible by a grant from the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Opportunity Fund, will allow DY-MESA youth to explore the Zuni environment in relation to its culture. Activities include an overnight camping trip to Nutria, traditional basket making and hands on ecology learning.

Faber said DY-MESA has seven components when it is in full swing: academic, jobs club, self-expression, lifetime individual sports, family life and sex education, mental health and medical and dental.

He referred to some of the after school programs as special tutoring—teaching kids what it’s like to earn money and how to build self-esteem; guiding them in ways to express themselves through art, pottery, theater and videography; educating them on how to create and maintain healthy relationships and avoid risky behavior; and instructing them on participating in physical activities like climbing rocks or playing tennis, and the upkeep required for some hobbies, like repairing bikes.

Faber said ZYEP wants to remove the barriers for a child to reach his or her potential. The program also ensures that all participants get regular clinical care.