Once again, the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s small staff, dedicated band of volunteers, and wide range of generous donors brought Santa Claus to South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. And, they managed to top last year by serving an additional 200-plus children.

According to Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director, this year’s Christmas Toy Drive served 1,554 children, and the nonprofit organization is still delivering gifts to families who weren’t available for pick-ups or deliveries on the holiday itself.

“In the end, we expect to serve close to 1,600 children in 20 communities across our 2.8-million-acre reservation,” she said. “Each of those children received up to four gifts from their ‘Dear Santa’ letter as well as winter clothing and shoes, and each package was addressed personally to the child for whom it was intended. It was a monumental undertaking, and we couldn’t have done it without our team.”

Indeed, it’s a dream team. Individual donors and partner organizations across the country spent many weeks fulfilling “Dear Santa” letters and shipping the carefully selected gifts to Eagle Butte. Once the gifts arrived at the CRYP campus, where the Cokata Wiconi (Center of Life) teen center became a 24-7 Santa’s workshop, staff members and resident volunteers worked alongside community members to sort and wrap thousands of gifts for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day distribution.

“It’s a Christmas miracle,” Garreau said simply. “We’re honored by the diverse group of people and groups that came together to make sure our kids would experience the magical, joyful holiday they so richly deserve. We’re deeply grateful for each and every person who made this dream come true.”

This year’s partners included South Dakota’s Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, Rapid City Woodworkers Association, and CRST Indian Child Welfare; the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, based in Virginia; the Spirit of Sovereignty Foundation in Minnesota; Haven Middle School in Evanston, Illinois; the Gen 8 Foundation in New York; and the St. Louis Branch of CRYP, a “friends” group based in Missouri.

Then there was Colorado.

“We’ve partnered with the student council at Fairview High School in Boulder for more than a decade,” Garreau said. “In recent years, interest along Colorado’s Front Range has exploded, and now we need a 26-foot rental truck to carry all the gifts to South Dakota!”

Joining Fairview High School are Lennar Construction, the American Indian College Fund, Fredericks Peebles & Morgan law firm, and a variety of student groups at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus. These include the Leeds School of Business faculty and staff, the Multicultural Business Student Association, the Diverse Scholars Program, the Delta Sigma Pi professional business fraternity, the Alpha Kappa Psi professional business fraternity, Sigma Pi, the Multicultural Greek Council, and the Beta Alpha Psi international honor organization for accounting, finance and information systems. Business students Alyssa Wilson and Randy Gardner pulled it all together.

In addition to these partners were many individual donors who adopted their own “Dear Santa” letters or sent financial contributions and gift cards so CRYP staff could do additional shopping on their end.

“So many wonderful people have taken Cheyenne River’s children into their hearts, which has a lasting impact,” Garreau said. “The Christmas Toy Drive is about so much more than toys. It’s about showing our kids that they’re important, and that they are loved.

“When they’re small, they feel loved by Santa Claus,” she continued. “When they get older, they realize they’re treasured by countless people across the country, and around the world, although they’ve never met. That’s a powerful force for good. As we always say here, you cannot underestimate the impact of a single act of kindness.”

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.

“Our families rely on us to be here for them, as much as our kids do,” Garreau said. “Again, this is about more than toys. It’s about lifting up an entire community.”

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.