This month, we’re going to do something a little differently. One of the leaders of our featured Partner of the Month, SWAMP-IN (Saints with a Mission Purpose — Indian Nations), will be sharing her group’s CRYP story. We’re honored to introduce our longtime friend and supporter Debra Wills, and to express our heartfelt gratitude for her St. Louis-based group’s many years of dedicated service with our not-for-profit, grassroots youth project.
“Looking back over the last 13 years, since SWAMP-IN was formed, I can come up with many reasons why my family was first drawn to the Cheyenne River Youth Project and the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation,” Wills says. “I don’t believe in coincidence. God always has a purpose beyond what I can see.
“In 2002, my husband Mike and I were teaching our sons about American History from an indigenous point of view. While reading the local paper, I saw an ad to adopt ‘Dear Santa’ letters from a reservation in South Dakota. We took three letters from children who were the same ages as our sons. The gifts were to come from them, not Mike or me; each letter was fulfilled, and that should have been the end of the story. Little did I know it would be just the beginning.
“Our oldest son, Craig, felt there were greater needs on the reservation than a once-per-year event like the Christmas Toy Drive could meet. He contacted Joyce Smith, who organized the toy drive in the St. Charles area, and he asked who he should contact at CRYP. Craig spoke to Executive Director Julie Garreau in December 2002 and started making plans for his Boy Scouts Eagle Project — a school supplies drive. Various people, businesses and churches in St. Charles and St. Louis donated the supplies, and we delivered them in August 2003.
“When we were at The Main that first time, it felt like home. Iyonne Garreau, Julie’s mother and a highly regarded elder in the community, sat with us and shared the history of her family and the pride she had for her children. On our way out of Eagle Butte, we decided that CRYP was a place we could serve in the future. The people who donated their time, talents and treasures wanted to join us, and a relationship was born.
“When we were at The Main that first time in August 2003, we gardened, canned, helped with activities and did whatever we were asked to do. The partnership was so important to our team. One of the great commandments is to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is an equal relationship based on mutual respect. Since that first year, we have continued to do big and small projects, from building a shed to pushing children on the swings, and we continue to build and develop our relationships. It’s great to see team members in their 70s playing ping-pong with Lakota teens, and to see our teens on the basketball court alongside Lakota teens. We see each other as individuals created by God, and breaking down the things that divide us is one of the greatest benefits to come from our relationship with CRYP.
“SWAMP-IN now has multiple teams from different churches and a local university. Lindenwood University’s first trip was in 2012, when Japanese students put together a Japanese Bistro Night at the Cokata Wiconi teen center to benefit CRYP. It was a lot of work and great fun! This year, for the first time, Lindenwood University gave accreditation to students on our spring team for their work at CRYP. They hosted a wellness conference for the community that was overseen by professors.
“Friends of Lakota Youth, which now handles Christmas Toy Drive efforts in our area, began in 2010 when Joyce Smith retired. Jennifer Counts and Nita Holt took it over, inspired after spending time on Cheyenne River in 2009. They and their team of volunteers are amazing people who work together with CRYP to make Christmas a wonderful time for reservation families.
“Why do we come? For some, it is to share the Gospel of Jesus through words and actions. For others, it means living out their faith in social ministry — through activities like the Christmas Drive, Passion for Fashion, and other events that connect us. For most, it is a little of both, for there is a great deal to be learned from listening to each other and to the stories we share around a table. Watching the kids grow up and become volunteers and staff at CRYP, and knowing we are a part of that experience, is a gift we all cherish.
“Each year I return to Cheyenne River is like coming home, because a part of me always remains there. The people and places are a treasure chest of memories I hold close to my heart. I have my family by blood, and a Cheyenne River family by choice.”