Communities of Care: Siċaŋġu Health Initiative and Zuni Youth Enrichment Project

A group of people stand in a circle outside with their arms around each other
Photo courtesy of Zuni Youth Enrichment Project

Often, the real magic of successful youth programs is creating a community of care. Care for each other, care for oneself, and care for the environment are at the root of the work NRF grantees do with kids. While these concepts are simple in some ways, they do not become part of the culture of an organization or a lasting practice in people’s lives without a lot of effort by program staff and volunteers. Care has to be built into practices with kids that also feel fun and engaging. Two NRF grantees that are doing exceptional work in promoting communities of care are the Siċaŋġu Health Initiative and the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP).

Young people sit on the ground painting together on a large shared canvas
Photo courtesy of Siċaŋġu Health Initiative

Both of these organizations work with Indigenous youth. Siċaŋġu Health Initiative is run by and serves the Siċaŋġu Lakota Nation. ZYEP is run by Zuni community members for Zuni youth. These communities are distinct in many ways, but both have been targeted by historic and ongoing systems of racism and discrimination that have disrupted many cultural forms of care for self, others, and the environment. Siċaŋġu Health Initiative and ZYEP are working to reconnect youth with cultural practices that allow young people to invest in their personal health and wellbeing, embed themselves in community networks, and make intentional choices about their environmental impact.

Children work together to clean a buffalo hide
Photo courtesy of Siċaŋġu Health Initiative

Siċaŋġu Health Initiative is part of an ecosystem of three organizations that make up the broader Siċaŋġu Co. Those organizations include an economic development corporation, a community development fund, and a community initiatives program. The Siċaŋġu Health Initiative and its focus on youth programming came out of a recognition that the long-term wellbeing of the community necessitated an investment in the next generation. The initiative is only in its fourth year but has grown rapidly. It now includes day camps, afterschool education, family-based health coaching, a home garden project, and an internship program. Siċaŋġu Health Initiative takes the approach of providing support for youth through multiple avenues that are all based in creating a legacy of cultural connection and community wellbeing. For example, programming like youth buffalo harvests allow young people to learn about healthy and sustainable food, connect with their culture, and build community ties.

several people walk forwards toward the camera dressed in colorful clothing
Photo courtesy of Zuni Youth Enrichment Project

ZYEP was founded in 2009 as a summer camp with the goal of helping Zuni youth have access to safe spaces to practice wellness and build cultural connection. These are still the cornerstones of ZYEP’s mission, but the organization has grown since then to include year-round offerings like an after school program and built infrastructure like a community youth center. The kids at ZYEP get to have fun painting, playing sports, making pottery, gardening, and hiking, but there’s something deeper at work as well. All of ZYEP’s programs are centered on an assets-based approach to youth development that fosters a new generation of Zuni leaders who feel valued, respected, and grounded in their identities. Executive director Tahlia Natachu-Eriacho believes ZYEP has been successful in this ambitious effort in large part due to community partnerships. ZYEP does not operate in a silo, but instead relies on community advisory committees that are trusted to guide ZYEP’s work. ZYEP also draws adult and peer mentors for youth programming from across the community. Mentors each bring their own individual knowledge, experiences, and approaches to working with youth.

The Siċaŋġu Health Initiative and the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project are examples of grassroots organizations that have built strong foundations of care for the kids they serve.The work they do is deeply meaningful and NRF is honored to be a small part of their stories. Both organizations receive grants from NRF that are part of our partnership with the Turner Foundation.