It’s not yet Halloween, and multihued leaves still cling to the branches, but for the staff and volunteers at the Cheyenne River Youth Project®, the holidays are right around the corner. Already, the hard-working team at the 27-year-old, not-for-profit youth organization are gearing up for their largest program of the year: the annual Christmas Toy Drive, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

In 2014, CRYP made sure that 1,350 children in 20 communities across South Dakota’s remote 2.8-million-acre reservation received personalized gifts. This year, it hopes to serve 1,500 with the help of donors, volunteers and other supporters.

According to Julie Garreau, executive director, the personal touch is what makes this annual toy drive so unique.

“Mother Teresa once said, ‘It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving,’” she said. “On Christmas morning, children all over the world delight in receiving the gifts from Santa Claus for which they hoped and dreamed. It’s part of the magic of the holiday, and we strongly believe that our kids deserve that magic too. So, when we first started the Christmas Toy Drive in 1990, we were adamant that our kids weren’t going to just receive gifts that were listed for ‘girl, age 3’ and ‘boy, age 10.’ The gifts are addressed to them personally, and they come directly from the children’s ‘Dear Santa’ letters.

“That’s so important,” she continued, “because for those kids, the personalized gifts mean that someone really does care about them. They will know how special they are, and that they are treasured.”

This is a big deal on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, where most families simply cannot stretch their budgets to cover holiday gifts. This is one of the poorest regions in the United States, with an unemployment rate hovering around 75 percent, and roughly 60 percent of households with children under the age of 18 falling below the poverty level.

That means far too many deserving children likely would have no Christmas at all, on a day that should be full of such shining promise. For Garreau and the rest of her team, that is simply unacceptable; so, each year, they work hard to bring Christmas to Cheyenne River.

The journey starts each September and doesn’t finish until the end of the day on December 25. Staff members reach out to partners around the world to marshal the resources they need to fulfill hundreds upon hundreds of “Dear Santa” letters. From Virginia and St. Louis to Colorado and the Dakotas, individuals, schools, not-for-profit organizations and businesses gather as many gifts as they can before loading up rental trucks and sending them out across the frozen prairie.

Volunteers will converge on Eagle Butte as the gifts roll in. These volunteers will opt to miss the holidays with their own families so they can travel across the country, and from as far away as Europe, to help. Staff, volunteers, and dedicated community members will work side by side, around the clock, wrapping thousands of gifts to make sure Santa will fulfill countless Christmas wishes and make so many Christmas dreams come true.

The fact that CRYP can still keep the toy drive personal is nothing short of a miracle.

“When we started 25 years ago, we hoped the toy drive would help us organize the toy donations we were receiving,” Garreau remembered. “As our efforts grew, we began soliciting donations nationwide and even worldwide; about six or seven years in, it really exploded.”

In fact, CRYP had to form its Family Services department in 2002 simply to manage the number of donations it was collecting. And it had to expand its distribution to include Christmas Eve; staff members realized 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’ll make sure your kids have a happy Christmas.”

Each participating child receives one or two gifts from his or her “Dear Santa” list, plus winter clothing and shoes. As those “Dear Santa” letters flood into the CRYP offices, staff and volunteers will solicit funds and in-kind donations from individuals and organizations around the world. Then, they match the Santa lists with just the right gifts and prepare beautifully wrapped packages for Christmas Eve pickups, which give children an opportunity to meet Santa, and Christmas Day deliveries, when Santa, Mrs. Claus, and the elves make the rounds in person.

“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.”

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.

Important Christmas Toy Drive partners include 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 and a group of determined students at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado; Fredericks Peebles & Morgan in Louisville, Colorado; the American Indian College Fund in Denver; and, new this year, the San Francisco-based transportation network company Lyft.

As Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Bringing Christmas to so many hundreds of children on a reservation the size of Connecticut changes lives — those of the excited children and their grateful families, and those of staff, volunteers and supporters. And they are forever connected.

If you would like to support the Christmas Toy Drive this holiday season, please click here to learn more about how you can help. Every contribution, no matter the size, will ensure that Cheyenne River’s children receive what they most richly deserve: a holiday season filled with joy, magic and hope.

To stay up to date on the latest CRYP news and events, follow the youth project on Facebook (/LakotaYouth), Twitter (@LakotaYouth) and Instagram (@waniyetuwowapi).

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.

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