The Whos may have held hands and started singing anyway, but for Louisa May Alcott’s beloved heroine Jo March, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”
Jo’s right. For children everywhere, the greatest joy of Christmas morning is waking up to see what Santa and his elves might have stuffed into colorful stockings and left underneath carefully decorated Christmas trees. That joy sparkles with magic and possibility, and it shines with the hope that life can be, at least for one day, absolutely perfect.
Yet many families on South Dakota’s remote, 2.8-million-acre Cheyenne River reservation find that their budgets cannot stretch to include holiday gifts, and their children have no guarantee that there will be anything under their trees on Christmas Day. So, each year, volunteers and donors from around the world join forces with the Cheyenne River Youth Project® to bring that happiness, joy and Christmas magic to hundreds of Cheyenne River’s children.
Last year, CRYP served 1,200 children in 20 reservation communities. This year, it hopes to serve 1,500. And once again, volunteer Dani Daugherty will be on hand to help.
Daugherty knows firsthand the challenges that Native American youth face — poverty, substance abuse, unemployment and, at times, hopelessness. She too grew up on a Lakota Sioux reservation in rural South Dakota.
“I remember how much it meant to encounter people who made me feel special and showed me that someone cared,” Daugherty recalled. “And the volunteer opportunities I’ve had at CRYP have allowed me to do my part in bringing a little extra joy to Cheyenne River’s children. Just seeing the light in their eyes keeps bringing me back.”
Daugherty said she’ll be in Santa’s Workshop this December, working alongside volunteers from around the world as they select, wrap and prepare to deliver presents to children across the reservation.
“It’s an incredibly complex task, but together, we can make it happen,” she enthused. “Last Christmas, as I wrapped presents for a household with a long list of children’s names, it reminded me of the poverty and housing shortages that make reservation life a struggle. Approximately 60 percent of Cheyenne River families with children under the age of 18 are living below the poverty line. Our presents are the only holiday gifts many of these children will receive, and their ‘Dear Santa’ letters will melt your heart.”
The CRYP Christmas Toy Drive first took shape more than two decades ago, when the not-for-profit youth organization started assembling all the year’s toy donations so it could distribute them to local families on Christmas Day. As the annual effort grew, CRYP began to solicit donations nationwide and even worldwide.
“The Christmas Toy Drive officially started in 1990, when we decided to pull together the toy donations we’d accumulated and distribute them to families in need,” recalled Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “About six or seven years later, it really exploded; we had to form our Family Services department in 2002 simply to manage the number of donations we were collecting.
“We’ve always wanted to use our resources to serve as many children as possible,” Garreau continued. “Our goal is to make sure every child on our reservation can enjoy the Christmas holiday, and to that end, we’ve been working very hard to increase the number of children served each year. This year, we’ve set the goal of 1,500, and I hope to see it continue to grow every year.”
And the Christmas Toy Drive has indeed been growing. A few years ago, CRYP staff members decided they needed to invite families to pick up their gifts at the Cokata Wiconi Teen Center in Eagle Butte on Christmas Eve; they had so many families in so many reservation communities, they couldn’t possibly make all of the deliveries reservation-wide on Christmas Day.
“Not only is the Christmas Toy Drive our longest-running program, it’s the one with the broadest reach,” Garreau said. “It doesn’t matter where you live on Cheyenne River, or how remote your community is. We can make sure your kids have a happy Christmas.”
Thanks to CRYP’s annual Christmas Toy Drive, each participating child receives one or two gifts from his or her “Dear Santa” list, plus much-needed winter clothing. And with more than a thousand children eagerly waiting for Santa, that means CRYP staff and volunteers must sort, wrap and distribute many thousands of presents.
Although autumn has barely started, Cheyenne River’s families already are completing their special “Dear Santa” letters on behalf of their children. These letters let CRYP know which gifts are most wanted — and what sizes of clothing, shoes, hats, gloves and mittens are most needed. And as the letters flood into the CRYP offices, staff and volunteers are already working hard to solicit funds and in-kind donations from individuals and organizations around the world.
CRYP then matches the Santa lists with just the right gifts and delivers beautifully wrapped packages to eager children and their grateful families. To them, the annual Christmas Toy Drive means everything.
“For our kids, the donors and volunteers are literally making Christmas happen,” Garreau said. “That inspires all of us, especially when we are working such long hours for days and even weeks prior to the holiday.”
And CRYP staff and volunteers do work around the clock to make sure each child’s Christmas wishes come true. On Christmas Eve, some families will come to the Cokata Wiconi Teen Center to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus and pick up their gifts; others will get an exciting home visit from Santa and the elves on Christmas Day. It’s a hard and fast deadline, and it absolutely must be met.
“Sometimes it seems crazy that we have to start this early, but it honestly takes this much time to coordinate efforts among our many partner organizations and supporters, to collect all the gift items and to sort and wrap all the packages for each family,” Garreau explained. “The earlier we can get started, the more communities — and the more children — we can serve.”
This tremendous undertaking requires substantial resources as well as time. Garreau acknowledged that CRYP would not be able to provide a happy Christmas for so many children without the financial contributions, gift donations and volunteer time provided by supporters around the country, and even around the world.
Over the last decade, important Christmas Toy Drive partners have included Christian Relief Services Charities; Running Strong for American Indian Youth; the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (Dakota) Community; the Spirit of Sovereignty Foundation; the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation; the St. Louis Chapter of CRYP; Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado; and Fredericks Peebles & Morgan in Louisville, Colorado.
Then there are the volunteers. Some are members of the local community. Others are current and former CRYP volunteers who stay through Christmas or return especially for the holiday season to help sort and wrap packages and assist with distribution and delivery. They come from all corners of the United States and from as far away as England, Ireland and Germany.
If you would like to support CRYP’s Christmas Toy Drive this holiday season, please see the sidebars accompanying this article for detailed information. Every contribution, no matter the size, will ensure that Cheyenne River’s children receive what all children should have: a very merry Christmas.
“Anyone can have the life-changing opportunity to bring true happiness to these children’s lives,” Dani Daugherty said. “This is about more than toys — it’s about letting them know that they deserve this happiness, just as all kids due. You’re letting them know that they’re loved and treasured. And you’re showing them that, yes, someone cares.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
There are several ways to help CRYP reach its goal of serving 1,500 children during the 2013 Christmas Toy Drive:
1. Make a tax-deductible donation by sending cash, a check or a money order to: The Cheyenne River Youth Project, P.O. Box 410, Eagle Butte, SD 57625.
2. Make a tax-deductible donation right here on our website, by clicking the “Donate Now” button on our home page or by clicking “Help CRYP” in the navigation bar above.
3. Donate a gift. See the most-requested-gift list in the news entry below this one; or, to request a specific “letter to Santa,” contact CRYP Family Services at (605) 964-8200 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
4. Donate gift cards, gift bags, wrapping paper, tissue paper, tape or anything else that might assist in toy-drive preparations.
5. Consider donating a Santa suit! We’d also love clothes for Mrs. Claus and the elves.
6. Spread the word. If you have friends or family members who might like to make a donation, please let them know how they can help.