It takes more than a Christmas blizzard to stop the Cheyenne River Youth Project®. Despite subzero temperatures, howling winter winds and mountainous snow drifts, the nonprofit youth organization still managed to bring Santa Claus to more than 1,300 excited children across South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Lakota reservation this year.
As always, volunteers from around the country and Europe converged on CRYP’s Cokata Wiconi (Center of Life) teen center, which had been transformed into a 24-7 Santa’s Workshop for the month of December. These dedicated helpers worked around the clock to sort and wrap thousands of gifts arriving from every corner of the United States.
These gifts came from long-standing partners like the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation and Running Strong for American Indian Youth, both based in Virginia; the Spirit of Sovereignty Foundation in Minnesota; the St. Louis Chapter of CRYP in Missouri; and Fairview High School, student groups at CU-Boulder, Fredericks Peebles & Morgan law firm, the American Indian College Fund and Lennar Construction, all in Colorado. But they also came from generous individuals whose contributions arrived in many forms.
“Some people adopted ‘Dear Santa’ letters and sent the gifts to us,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “Others made financial contributions so we could do the shopping on our end. And a few, like Bob Buchanan with the Rapid City Woodworkers Association here in South Dakota, truly went above and beyond; Bob sent us beautiful wooden toys that their group hand-crafted for our kids.
“We offer our heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped bring Santa to our kids this year,” she continued. “Serving so many hundreds of children and their families is nothing short of a Christmas miracle, and we simply couldn’t have done it without you. You honor us with your friendship and support.”
Thanks to everyone’s contributions in the weeks and months leading up to the Christmas holiday, CRYP was once again able to ensure that every child received two or three gifts from his or her deeply personal ‘Dear Santa’ letter, as well as much-needed winter clothing. Yet at its heart, the Christmas Toy Drive is about so much more than presents.
“We have always viewed the toy drive as a movement to lift up our community,” Garreau explained. “If we can demonstrate to our children in a meaningful way that they are treasured, that someone cares, and that they do matter in this world, then we have made a lasting, positive impact on the next generation, which is Cheyenne River’s future. That’s what the Christmas Toy Drive does every year, for thousands of children here. Even if they never know how many people worked together to make their precious Christmas wishes come true, their lives have been powerfully and forever changed.”
The annual Christmas Toy Drive means as much to Cheyenne River’s parents and caregivers as it does to the children. On this remote prairie reservation, which comprises two of the 10 poorest counties in the United States, unemployment is above 70 percent. There is little room in family budgets for necessities, much less for holiday gifts.
“In December, we frequently have our moments when it seems we won’t get everything done in time for Christmas Eve, but somehow we always manage to do it,” Garreau reflected. “It’s all worth it when we see the relief in the eyes of the family members. Like all parents and grandparents, they want to give their children a happy Christmas. They understand life is hard here, and they know their children have to grow up too fast. Just for one day, they want them to experience the carefree happiness and joy of just being a kid. All children deserve that.”
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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.