In less than two months, the Cheyenne River Youth Project will bring Santa Claus to South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, where he will deliver thousands of personalized Christmas gifts to children in 20 reservation communities. The grassroots, nonprofit youth organization has held its Wo Otúh’an Wi Toy Drive for three decades, and according to Executive Director Julie Garreau, the novel coronavirus pandemic won’t keep Santa from visiting hundreds of Lakota children again this year.

“If the Great Recession couldn’t stop Santa Claus, Covid-19 won’t stop him either,” Garreau said. “Bringing holiday joy to more than a thousand children is always a massive undertaking, and the pandemic certainly presents additional challenges, but my staff, our volunteers, and our dedicated donors across the country and around the world are joining forces to make it happen. It means everything to our kids.”

The Cheyenne River Lakota Nation makes its home in two of the 10 poorest counties in the United States, and more than half of its households with children under age 18 fall below the poverty line. Life in these remote Great Plains communities has always been challenging, but these days, it’s even harder. The Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted daily life, especially for children.

“They’ve lost so much,” Garreau said. “We cannot allow them to lose the magic and joy of the holidays as well. They rely on us to be here for them, and we always keep our promises, so we’re putting all of our energy, creativity, and resourcefulness toward this year’s toy drive. We’re going to make this happen, one step at a time, and as safely as possible.

“Wo Otúh’an Wi means ‘Moon of Giving Away Presents’ in Lakota, and it holds that space in own CRYP version of the winter count,” she continued. “Not only does that capture the spirit of the holiday season, it resonates with one of our most precious Lakota values — generosity. And especially this year, for the sake of our children, we need to embrace that spirit of generosity, taking care of one another,  and working together for the well-being of our community.” 

CRYP is currently seeking organizational partners and individual supporters around the country to help fulfill the many hundreds of “Dear Santa” letters that are flooding into CRYP headquarters. As families renew their memberships in the youth project’s long-running Family Services program, their children complete deeply personal and heartfelt letters to Santa, in which they share what they most hope to receive for Christmas; they also ask for much-needed winter clothing and shoes, and often for items to make life easier for family members as well.

Each year, CRYP receives approximately 1,500 “Dear Santa” letters. Although the numbers are impressive, the Wo Otúh’an Wi Toy Drive isn’t about numbers. Instead, it’s dedicated to fulfilling unique, precious childhood wishes.

“With so many holiday toy drives, gifts are assigned to genders and ages,” Garreau explained. “You’ll see tags for ‘Boy, Age 4’ and ‘Girl, Age 8.’ Since the beginning, we’ve insisted on keeping this personal. When our children give us their letters to Santa, and when they let him know what toys they’d like, they’re really sharing their dreams.

“When Christmas arrives, our kids see beautifully wrapped packages with their names on them,” she added. “And when they open their gifts and see that Santa made some of their wishes come true, they experience the true magic of the holiday season. All children, everywhere, should experience that magic and feel the joy and hope that come with it.”

This level of personalization is challenging given the massive scope of the project, but CRYP staff members, donors, and volunteers are determined to deliver. That means working around the clock in the weeks and days leading up to Christmas, but Garreau said it’s worth it.

“Working together, we’re able to give our children one day to just be kids,” she said. “When they’re small, they understand that Santa loves them. When they grow up, they see the magnitude of what happens here. In both cases, they understand on a heart level how treasured they are. They feel that they are loved, and they are.”

To support the Wo Otúh’an Wi Toy Drive and to learn more about the many ways to help make a child’s dreams come true this holiday season, please visit lakotayouth.org/toy-drive. Every contribution directly supports CRYP’s gift-giving efforts, and makes a real difference in the lives of Cheyenne River’s children.

“This has been an unprecedented year in so many ways,” Garreau reflected. “First and foremost, I want to thank everyone who has helped us stay above water in 2020, and who is supporting us now in bringing a little extra joy to our kids. The need is so great across this country, we are humbled and honored that you would choose us.”

To learn more about the Cheyenne River Youth Project and its programs, and for information about making donations and volunteering, call (605) 964-8200 or visit www.lakotayouth.org. And, 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.

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