As the year winds down, staff members at the Cheyenne River Youth Project® have two major endeavors on their minds. One is the annual Christmas Toy Drive, a mammoth undertaking that brings holiday cheer to more than 1,200 children across the 2.8-million-acre Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota’s remote West River country. The other is no less gargantuan: recruiting enough volunteers to keep the youth project’s East Lincoln Street campus running throughout the new year.

Most people may not be aware that CRYP relies heavily on volunteer support to keep its doors open, its programs running, and its services flowing to the Cheyenne River community.

“In the beginning, it likely was more obvious,” said Tammy Eagle Hunter, CRYP’s youth programs director. “When the youth project began in 1988 in a run-down former bar on Main Street, it was 100-percent volunteer-run. Although we’ve expanded to include The Main youth center, Cokata Wiconi teen center, Family Services, Winyan Toka Win garden, Keya Cafe and Coffeeshop, and full-time staff, we still depend on volunteer support. We simply couldn’t continue with our mission in the community without our volunteers.”

These volunteers have been familiar figures on Cheyenne River for 26 years. They’ve prepared healthy meals and snacks for young children and teens. They’ve lovingly tended the 2-acre, naturally grown Winyan Toka Win garden, and staffed the Leading Lady Farmers Market, Keya Cafe, and Keya Gift Shop. They’ve stayed up late so kids can play basketball after curfew — or all night so the kids can enjoy a safe, fun lock-in or movie marathon. They’ve taught special classes and workshops. They’ve danced in costume on Main Street to raise funds and awareness. They’ve cleaned, organized, fixed, built, imagined, created, played, mediated, problem-solved, and comforted.

“It’s true that we’ve come a long way from the old ‘Main,’” Eagle Hunter reflected, “yet we need our volunteers more than ever. We have a very small and often overworked staff, which has to operate a 26,000-square-foot teen center, a 5,000-foot youth center, and a year-round Family Services community program, as well as all of our additional initiatives, from the cafe and gift shop to the garden and the farmers market. We couldn’t provide for our kids and our families without the volunteers.

“There is a place here for anyone who wishes to contribute, regardless of that person’s experience,” she continued. “Everyone has gifts to share, and we welcome them here.”

These service-minded men and women come from around the world and from all walks of life. Some are high school and college students who travel to South Dakota as part of an “alternative spring break program.” Some take time off from school and work to help with the annual Christmas Toy Drive each December, and others travel with community and church service groups.

But others take an even longer hiatus, joining CRYP for several weeks, several months or even a year. They come from every state in the union, and from as far away as Mexico, England, Ireland, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. Eagle Hunter said those are the volunteers CRYP needs most, looking ahead to 2015.

“Our kids and families rely on us to be here for them, so the volunteers who can make the largest impact are the ones who can stay for a couple of months or longer,” she explained. “They provide consistency and continuity, and because they get to know us so well, they have the opportunity to help develop new programs and activities. In fact, two of our most popular programs, Midnight Basketball and Main University, were the brainchildren of long-term volunteers.”

The volunteers must expect to work hard, she advised. But the rewards that come from the long hours are many, and they might prove surprising.

“When you live and work at CRYP, you spend most of your time serving children, teens and families in our community, and yes, you’ll work very hard,” Eagle Hunter said. “Sometimes it may seem as if your efforts don’t make a difference at all. But they do. Simply by being at CRYP, no matter what your tasks might be, you are ensuring that our team can continue to provide for our children and our families here on Cheyenne River. We need your support to do what we need to do.

“And in the process,” she continued, “you’ll find that you’re participating in a significant cultural exchange within U.S. borders. You’ll have the chance to learn about and experience Lakota culture, meet some of our elders and hear our stories, help tend the earth through traditional native gardening practices, and enjoy recreation in our beautiful prairie home.”

Volunteers may also find that they forge lasting friendships. In 26 years, CRYP staff has seen volunteers return time and again. Some forgo the holidays with their families to return each year for the Christmas Toy Drive, others have opted to join the youth project as staff members, and thanks to social media, many remain in contact with each other — and with the children and families they served — for years to come.

New York resident Laure Lachaud originally intended to volunteer with CRYP for three months. She ended up staying for nearly two years and has returned four more times to help with the three Christmas Toy Drives, four Passion for Fashion events, three Easter egg hunts, one Thanksgiving and numerous birthday parties.

“I’ve missed family’s and friends’ birthdays and holidays, and I haven’t regretted it for a second,” Lachaud says. “I’ve made so many different friends while working and volunteering at the project. I now have friends on several different continents, who speak several different languages, not to mention all the wonderful people I’ve met on the reservation.

“There’s a special bond people create when working together at CRYP,” she continues, “but my favorite memories will always involve the kids — playing with them, working with them. The kids are the real reason I keep coming back.”

To learn more about the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s volunteer program and how you can help, call (605) 964-8200, click on “Volunteer” in the navigation bar above, and watch the volunteering video on our home page.

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.