By the time fall arrives, countless children are already writing their letters to Santa Claus, already counting down the days until he arrives with his bountiful stocking-stuffers and beautifully wrapped packages. Countless parents are already making their annual holiday to-do lists, hoping that they’ll get the holiday cards, shopping, baking, and decorating done on time this year.

Unfortunately, that’s not the reality for everyone. When there is no room in the family budget for gifts, much less ornaments or Christmas cookies, the holidays are likely to be stressful and sad rather than merry.

That’s why the Cheyenne River Youth Project started its annual Christmas Toy Drive more than a quarter century ago. On the Cheyenne River reservation in north-central South Dakota, the unemployment rate hovers near 75 percent, and approximately 60 percent of households with children under the age of 18 fall below the poverty line. Here, too many children would likely have no Christmas at all, so CRYP stepped in to help Santa Claus—and ease the burden on families who have so little.

“These days, we’re bringing Christmas to more than 1,600 children in 20 communities across our reservation,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “It’s a massive undertaking, one that wouldn’t be possible without our friends and supporters around the world who send funding and gifts, who volunteer their time, and who spread the word among their families, friends and colleagues.

“Together, we give Cheyenne River’s children the joyous, magical holiday they deserve,” she continued. “Children have to grow up fast here. So, for one day at least, we want them to just be kids, and enjoy the kind of Christmas experiences other children have.”

CRYP’s Christmas Toy Drive is unique among the many toy drives taking place across the country for one reason: It’s personal. For 26 years, the nonprofit youth organization has accepted children’s carefully written letters to Santa, and it sends each child at least two or three gifts that came directly from his or her letter.

“We’ve remained adamant that our kids aren’t going to receive generic gifts for ‘girl, age 7’ or ‘boy, age 5,’” Garreau said. “Each child is special, and we understand that when you receive a gift from Santa that you really wanted, the magic of the season truly comes alive. More than that, it shows you that you matter, you’re loved, and someone out there really does care about you.”

In addition to gives from his or her “Dear Santa” letter, each participating child will receive much-needed winter clothing and shoes. Staff and volunteers select just the right gifts and clothes for each child and prepare beautifully wrapped, personalized packages for Christmas Eve pickups at the Cokata Wiconi (Center of Life) teen center, as well as Christmas Day deliveries in the Eagle Butte community.

“For our kids, the donors and volunteers are literally making Christmas happen,” Garreau said. “That inspires all of us, especially when we are working around the clock in the days and weeks leading up to the holiday.”

Important 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 dedicated student group 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 the San Francisco-based transportation network company Lyft.

Throughout October and November, these partners will work hard to gather as many gifts as they can. Then, in early December, they’ll load up rental trucks christened Rudolph I, II and III and send them across the prairie to north-central South Dakota.

At the same time, volunteers will converge on Cokata Wiconi, transformed into Santa’s Workshop. These volunteers have chosen to miss holiday celebrations with their own families so they can help bring Santa Claus to Cheyenne River’s children. They’ll work side by side with staff and dedicated community members, wrapping the many thousands of gifts to make sure Santa will be able to make so many Christmas dreams come true.

CRYP couldn’t provide a happy Christmas for so many children without supporters’ financial contributions, gift donations, and volunteer time.

“We’re so thankful to the organizations who partner with us every year, and to those who are joining us for the first time,” Garreau said. “We’re also deeply grateful to the many private individuals across the country and around the world who make a financial contribution, or who adopt a ‘Dear Santa’ letter and provide the gifts that will brighten a child’s Christmas morning.

“With more than 1,600 children to serve, this is more than a toy drive,” she added. “It’s a movement, one that is dedicated to spreading love, joy and hope where it’s most needed—among our precious children. And we simply couldn’t do it without you.”

If you would like to support the Christmas Toy Drive this holiday season, please click here. Every contribution makes a real difference in the lives of Cheyenne River’s children.

To stay up to date on the latest CRYP news and events, follow the youth project on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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.

Share This Story