Founded in 2018, the University of Missouri-St. Louis Child Advocacy Studies team is dedicated to providing a very special service learning and community engagement experience for its university students. According to UMSL leader Dana Klar, the group’s mission is to prepare students to be trauma-informed professionals who will respond appropriately to experiences of traumatic stress and maltreatment in children and adolescents.
“As CAST-affiliated volunteers, we are all passionate child advocates who know that healthy families and communities are paramount to healthy children,” Klar says. “We are passionate about any project, any activity, that aims to provide healthy experiences and environments for youth. We also know and are passionate about cross-cultural sensitivity, and the power of diverse experiences and engagements, as these are also critical to providing the very best for all children everywhere.”
Klar first became acquainted with the Cheyenne River Youth Project when a student mentioned her own volunteer trip with St. Louis-based SWAMP-IN. The student described the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation as a very caring community, and indicated that she’d had an excellent experience. SWAMP-IN leader Debbie Wills met with Klar, as did a Cheyenne River tribal member.
“They shared all the amazing things that make CRYP a perfect location to volunteer, and to help our students learn and share with another community,” says Klar, who then volunteered with SWAMP-IN prior to leading the UMSL Child Advocacy Studies team.
Klar has now visited CRYP every summer since 2011. The UMSL team is now in its third year, and it is dedicated to the RedCan invitational graffiti jam.
“We primarily assist with housekeeping, cooking, and yard clean up, along with gardening and whatever else is needed,” she explains. “In 2019, we asked if we could perhaps offer some children’s activities during the days; this was welcomed and approved, and that quickly became our favorite task! We love creating and offering art and craft projects during RedCan. These projects allow us to meet some of the community’s children and families, and to experience the pure joy of making new art with others.
“We also love offering a community meal, as it provides the chance to honor first responders and to just be with community,” she added. “We enjoy the engagement with others, the sharing of stories and ideas.”
Klar notes that she doesn’t have enough words to fully express the myriad ways CRYP is important to the Cheyenne River community. As child advocates, the UMSL team recognizes the importance of CRYP’s offerings, from nutritious meals and snacks after school and Family Services that ensure household and baby needs are met, to the wide variety of culturally relevant, activity-based programming, which is so critical to youth development and child well-being.
“All of these things matter, tremendously, in the health of children and families,” Klar says. “We applaud and are inspired by the many amazing things that CRYP does. Each and every project is of tremendous import to the health of the community, and this includes RedCan. It is truly awe-inspiring to know, and have the opportunity to volunteer for, such an incredible organization that does such important work, with staff members who are clearly passionate about the health and care of Cheyenne River’s future — its children.”
Through its volunteer experiences on Cheyenne River, the UMSL team has learned how important relationships are at CRYP, and on the Cheyenne River reservation in general. Klar observes there is a distinct family feeling when volunteers live and work at the CRYP campus.
“We think people might be surprised to know that the Cheyenne River community is not seeking ‘dump and run’ donations or ‘fly by night’ volunteer groups… instead, they seek truly invested relationships that over time can make a meaningful difference for all parties involved.”
Klar says a quote from Lilla Watson, an aboriginal activist, says it best: “If you are here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.”
“We also value this,” she says. “We are so happy to be connected to the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation and hope to remain so for many, many years to come.”