In partnership with a broad range of individuals, schools, businesses and nonprofit organizations, the Cheyenne River Youth Project® was once again able to bring Santa Claus to South Dakota’s 2.8-million-acre Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation during the 2014 holiday season. (Check out our video here!)
Thanks to the overwhelming support of these invaluable partners, not to mention the hard work and dedication of a small army of volunteers, CRYP’s 2014 Christmas Toy Drive served 1,350 children in 20 communities. Their “Dear Santa” letters came from 325 families, regular attendees at CRYP’s Cokata Wiconi teen center and The Main youth center, and children who live in local shelters and foster care.
“We’re absolutely thrilled that we were able to bring Santa to more children than ever before,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “For the past few years, we’ve served approximately 1,200 kids. Not only did we reach about 150 more children this year, we eased the burden for about 50 more families. We are so grateful to the many donors and volunteers who helped make this Christmas miracle happen.”
The 26-year-old youth organization makes sure that every child who writes a “Dear Santa” letter gets three or four gifts from that letter, which means volunteers work around the clock sort and wrap literally thousands of presents. This year, just three returning volunteers were on hand to tackle the monumental task: Laura Copeland from California, Winifred Kelly from Ireland, and David Harper from Maryland.
“Ever since we started the Christmas Toy Drive more than 20 years ago, we’ve been dedicated to keeping it personal,” Garreau said. “We don’t just give gifts to ‘boy, age 3’ or “girl, age 8.’ We want to let the children know that they matter, that Santa knows who they are. As we’ve grown, there definitely are challenges in maintaining that level of attention, particularly when we’re short-staffed — but we’re going to keep it personal, no matter how big it gets.”
Fortunately, Christmas is indeed the time for miracles. Carlos Correa, his wife, and their three children made the long trip from Chicago to help. The Oak Lake Colony of Hudderites came to Eagle Butte with more than 20 volunteers. The Lila Waste Chapter of the National Honor Society chipped in, as did the English honors class from Cheyenne-Eagle Butte High School and 29 individual community volunteers.
“We were overwhelmed by the support, especially the love and generosity that came from within our own community,” Garreau said. “Cheyenne River was determined to make sure its children got the Christmas they deserved.”
Community member Lizabeth Nezzie contributed more than 40 hours as a volunteer in the days leading up to Christmas. Tammy Eagle Hunter, CRYP’s youth programs director, said Nezzie was amazed by the amount of work that goes into the annual Christmas Toy Drive.
“She knew we were understaffed, so she dedicated a lot of time to help us get this done,” Eagle Hunter said. “She told us she was really happy while she was wrapping, because she could see how many families were getting such nice things. She knew they would really enjoy receiving these gifts on Christmas.”
The annual toy drive means as much to Cheyenne River’s parents and other caregivers as it does to the children. On this remote prairie reservation, which comprises two of the poorest counties in the United States, unemployment hovers around 75 percent. There is little room in family budgets for necessities, much less for holiday gifts.
“We had one community member comment on how she recently became a one-income family and was discouraged because she wasn’t sure she would be able to provide her family with a good Christmas,” Eagle Hunter said. “CRYP helped her give her children a very merry Christmas, and she was incredibly thankful.”
Garreau and Eagle Hunter said it’s worth all the hard work and lost sleep when staff and volunteers see the relief and happiness on the faces of the parents, and the joy and hope shining in the eyes of their children.
“This really is what Christmas is all about,” Garreau said, “and we’re forever grateful to the many partners who make this magic happen, year after year.”
In the weeks prior to Christmas, donations and financial contributions poured into Eagle Butte from around the country, and around the world. In December, big trucks pulled into CRYP’s East Lincoln Street campus from Virginia, Missouri and Colorado, bearing the precious fruit of local toy drives spearheaded by Running Strong for American Indian Youth, the St. Louis Chapter of CRYP, and Fairview High School in Boulder.
Many other supporters took part in this massive movement: the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the staff at the American Indian College Fund, Amert Construction Inc., the Sioux Falls-based rap group Black Mask Armada, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, D&R Propane, Elevation Cycles, Four Bands Community Fund, Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLC, The Gitlin Foundation, the Larson Family Foundation, the Rapid City Woodworkers Association, Rotary clubs in Rapid City and Fort Pierre-Pierre, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Six Points Inc., the Spirit of Sovereignty Foundation, the State Bank of Eagle Butte, student volunteers at CU-Boulder’s business and law schools, and Western Dakota Bank.
The children may never know the sheer number of people and organizations involved in bringing Santa Claus to their door. But they do know that they are loved and treasured, and that’s what matters most.
“Dear Santa,” wrote one young man. “Thank you so much for what you did. I really like the presents you gave me. You mean a lot to me and my family. Thank you for taking time away from your family to bring presents to all the kids around the world.”
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 www.lakotayouth.org. And, to stay up to date on the latest CRYP news and events, follow the youth project on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
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.