The numbers are in, and they’re numbers the Cheyenne River Youth Project® has never seen before. In its 2015 Christmas Toy Drive, the 27-year-old, not-for-profit youth organization brought Santa Claus to more than 1,600 children across South Dakota’s remote Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.

As they do every year, Cheyenne River’s children wrote heartfelt letters to Santa throughout the fall months, asking for gifts for themselves and frequently for family members as well. This past fall, letters came from 340 families, regular participants at CRYP’s Cokata Wiconi (Center of Life) teen center and The Main youth center, and children who live in local shelters and foster care.

“During the past few years, we’ve set a goal of serving 1,500 children at Christmastime,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “We constantly strive to expand our reach and serve more children each year, since the need is so great on Cheyenne River. We’re stunned that we not only exceeded our goal this year, we exceeded it by more than 100 children. We simply couldn’t have done that without all of our dedicated partners, and our army of around-the-clock volunteers. It’s so much more than a seasonal toy drive. It’s a movement.”

CRYP’s Christmas Toy Drive is unique because it’s deeply personal. Each holiday season, staff and volunteers make sure that every child who writes a “Dear Santa” letter gets three or four gifts from that exact letter, which means volunteers must sort and wrap literally thousands of presents. This year, more than 20 volunteers converged on the CRYP campus to help out — from California to New York, and from as far away as England and Ireland.

“Ever since we started the Christmas Toy Drive in 1990, 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’re important, that they’re treasured, and that Santa knows who they are.”

The annual Christmas 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.

“The weeks leading up to Christmas are hard around here,” Garreau said. “We work long hours, and we certainly have moments where we worry we’re not going to be able to get everything done in time for Christmas Eve. But all that work is worth it when we see the children’s joy, and the relief and happiness in the eyes of their parents and family members.

“This really is what Christmas is all about,” she added. “It’s not just about toys. It’s about feeling cared for, and loved; and it’s about lifting up a community. It’s about hope.”

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 Colorado-based groups that included Fairview High School in Boulder, students from CU-Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, the American Indian College Fund in Denver, and Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLC in Louisville.

“We also were deeply honored by the coalition of new and returning partners around the country that supported us every step of the way,” Garreau said. “These included a group of local businesses and organizations here on Cheyenne River, and we are so grateful to each of them for making such a valuable contribution to our own community.”

Cheyenne River’s children may never know how many people and organizations pulled together so Santa Claus could make it on Christmas. But, this year, more than 1,600 of them do know that they are loved and treasured, and that’s what matters most.

See the 2015 Christmas Toy Drive video on our home page, 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.

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