After a long pandemic hiatus, one of the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s most beloved programs returned this winter. Main University kicked off on Jan. 18 and ran for six weeks, with 17 children celebrating their graduation on Monday, Mar. 6. 

A recipient of a “Champion for Children” award from the South Dakota Coalition for Children, Main University takes place at CRYP’s youth center for 4- to 12-year-olds. Affectionately called “The Main,” this center replaced CRYP’s original Main Street youth center in 1999; it was the first building to open on the nonprofit organization’s current campus. 

Along with Summer Literacy and Garden Club, Main University is one of the new Main’s original programs. It was founded by a long-term volunteer in 2002.

“Main University gives our kids opportunities to take short courses that mimic those offered in a college setting, allowing them to explore subjects that may not be offered in school,” explained Jerica Widow, CRYP’s programs director. “That’s at the heart of every program we offer here at CRYP: offering opportunities to which our kids might not otherwise have access. It’s so important for their growth and well-being.”

During this session, Main University took place twice per week at 4-6 p.m. CRYP staff, volunteers and special guest instructors taught a variety of courses, including Lakota language, traditional Lakota arts, dinosaurs, astronomy, sock puppet theater, automotive parts, and biology. Instructors split the biology portion of the program into two sections, one dedicated to animals in winter and the other dedicated to plants. The kids even had an opportunity to gather interesting flowers and leaves, dry and classify them, and create a herbarium.

On Monday, Mar. 6, CRYP celebrated the 17 children who completed the program with a formal graduation; seven were able to attend in person, with the other 10 receiving their diplomas at a later date. Family members were welcome to attend and enjoy the festivities and refreshments with their graduates.

“The graduation ceremony is an important part of the program, because we want our kids to learn to take responsibility for their attendance and their classroom projects,” Widow said. “Throughout the entire experience, we want them to feel free to explore their interests and embrace the idea that learning can be both interesting and fun. Those skills will serve them well as they head to middle school, high school and their post-secondary education, whether that involves pursuing a trade or going on to college.” 

According to Widow, this year’s Main University was a great success. She says the kids loved learning to make traditional beaded necklaces, learning the Lakota language, and learning about car parts. 

“The kids had some previous knowledge on these topics, and they were engaged with activities that still allowed them to listen to the instructors,” Widow said. “It was wonderful to see their proud faces.” 

Guest instructor Starr Chief Eagle taught the Lakota arts course, which focused on beading necklaces. An enrolled member of the Sicangu (Rosebud) Lakota Sioux Tribe, Chief Eagle is an acclaimed hoop dancer and Lakota culture interpreter, and Widow said the children loved her class. 

“One little boy, Trent, stayed in the library for 10 minutes after everyone else left just so he could finish his necklace,” she recalled.

Instructors incorporated arts and crafts into all of the courses. One particular hit was the Turtle Island Project, during which the children made turtles out of bowls while discussing the Lakota story of Turtle Island.

“Mya, a 12-year-old with a huge talent for drawing, created a turtle that was inspired by her favorite show,” Widow said. “She lit up and smiled more than usual that day. Taliyah and Kai’Leigh also are great at arts and crafts, and they never failed to help clean up afterward.

“For most of the kids, it takes a lot of engagement and an artistic approach to get them to participate in classes,” she added, “but when they focus, they create beautiful projects that reflect who they are.” 

During each Main University session, the CRYP team ensured that all children would have opportunities to exercise in the Čhokáta Wičhóni (Center of Life) gymnasium next door, providing free gym time as well as games like Red Rover and Red Light Green Light. The team also offered bonus arts and crafts activities, parlor games, and Lakota storytelling.

“Those activities were not part of the Main University courses, but we understand that young children have a lot of energy and a wide variety of interests,” Widow said. “We do our best to meet them where they are, and engage them in the ways that best meet their needs.”

To learn more about the Cheyenne River Youth Project and its programs, and for information about making donations and volunteering, call (605) 964-8200 or visit And, to stay up to date on the latest CRYP news and events, follow the youth project on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

The Cheyenne River Youth Project, founded in 1988, is a grassroots, not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing the youth of the Cheyenne River reservation with access to a vibrant and secure future through a wide variety of culturally sensitive and enduring programs, projects and facilities that ensure strong, self-sufficient families and communities.