My name is Debbie Wills, I am 55, and I reside in St. Peters, Missouri, which is about 20 miles northwest of St. Louis. My volunteer service group, SWAMP-IN (Saints With A Mission Purpose-Indian Nations), was founded in 2003 with the purpose of working alongside native people—in their own communities, and under their direction. It’s a service ministry organization under Affiliated International Ministries, a 501c3 organization, and associated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
It all began with Craig Wills, who was in the Boy Scouts 17 years ago. We learned about CRYP through a woman named Joyce Smith, who participated in the youth project’s annual Christmas Toy Drive, and decided to deliver school supplies and hygiene products to CRYP for Craig’s Eagle Scout project. Executive Julie Garreau and her mother, Iyonne, invited us to return to Eagle Butte and volunteer. So, in 2004, our first team of 19 people came to work at The Main, CRYP’s youth center for 4- to 12-year-olds.
During our first few years, we did whatever was needed. We worked in the garden, and we helped staff and long-term volunteers with children’s activities and community events. We were just one team of 10 or more people coming to share our time, talents and treasures working within the structure of CRYP.
Those were the years before Cokata Wiconi (Center of Life), which opened for dedicated teen programming in 2006. In 2008, we jumped from one team to three; Messiah Church joined us, and my home church Zion, Harvester, having a family team to serve as our veterans and then a youth team as a second group.
Jumping forward to 2019, we now have an average of four to five teams—60 to 80 people—coming to the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation every year. Each trip lasts from one to three weeks.
Julie and Iyonne Garreau began our relationship with an invitation, and that footprint has become our focus: We only go where we are invited, and we stay only as long as the invitation remains. It isn’t about us and what we want. It’s about the Lakota people and what they need from us.
Our teams focus on program- and project-based services. Most recently, our main focus has been working with the younger children at The Main, although we still assist with work projects such as buffing walls for the RedCan graffiti jam, maintenance jobs, and various facilities needs. Our workforce has changed over the years; we now have fewer team members able to do building projects, and more who have interest in working with the children’s and teens’ programs. In fact, a former team member, Kirsten Stone, has joined the CRYP staff as a youth programs assistant.
We love working with the kids. In the last 17 years, we’ve seen children grow to adulthood and return to CRYP with their children. We’ve watched many of them become teen interns, and some have even become staff members. We also love working alongside the staff.
In the beginning, we had no expectations, because we had little experience with reservations. As time went on, however, our teams grew to expect CRYP and the Cheyenne River community to remain largely the same from year to year, to remain familiar—but both are always evolving, and there are challenges that come with change. But this is family. We work together to make a better present and future for those who come after us. It is as simple, and as complicated, as that!
I hope we have impacted Cheyenne River in a way that benefits the Lakota people. I know we have been changed by our time on Cheyenne River. We have learned the strengths of the Lakota people, we’ve shared tears when struggles come our way, and we have laughed together when the lines between us are no longer visible in that moment.
I am excited for my family on Cheyenne River, and can’t wait to see what the future holds.