When the Cheyenne River Youth Project launched its teen internships at Cokata Wiconi (Center of Life) in 2013, 10 teenagers graduated from the program. Just five years later, that number has reached the impressive 600 mark.

Six art interns and two indigenous cooking interns are preparing to graduate prior to the Christmas holiday. Three teens will complete their social enterprise internships by Dec. 23, and that will bring the total number of graduates to 610.

“When it comes to programming, we’ve always listened to our kids,” says Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “They tell us what they want, and we let them lead the way. They wanted this, and it clearly resonates with them. Interest just continues to grow, year after year.

“Teens who are given opportunities like this are more likely to envision a future in which they can thrive,” she continues. “They develop specific education and career goals, and they learn to diligently work toward those goals. They also are more likely to make positive choices, and become their community’s next generation of leaders and culture bearers.”

CRYP began its teen internship program with one available track: native food sovereignty, then called sustainable agriculture. The nonprofit youth organization now offers internships in five tracks: art, native wellness, indigenous cooking, native food sovereignty, and social enterprise (which involves working in the youth project’s Keya Cafe, Keya Gift Shop and Leading Lady Farmers Market).

All interns get certified in First Aid and CPR; participate in educational workshops such as financial literacy, customer service and public speaking; enjoy hands-on experiences in CRYP’s facilities; serve as peer mentors and community leaders; and earn money for their new savings accounts. Along the way, they stay quite busy, and as 14-year-old Justelle Dupris notes, it’s “a good busy.”

“I need that in order to stay on the right track,” Dupris explains.

The teens recognize that they’re gaining vital job and life skills, all of which will serve them well as they plan for their futures. The internships not only help them explore their passions and interests, they provide a window into what different career paths might look like.

“I like art more than ever, actually realizing this could be my business,” says 15-year-old Dawnelle Carter (see photo, above). “People tried to buy my art before, but now I’m more confident.”

“The art internship really helped me,” says fellow graduate Mason Benoist, 18. “I just put myself out there. Now I’m going to miss it.”

Eighteen-year-old Tylaina Dupris says simply, “You guys give good experiences.” 

To learn more about CRYP and the impact its art internships have on Cheyenne River Lakota teens, check out the short documentary film “Lakota In America,” commissioned by Square and produced by Even/Odd Films: https://squareup.com/dreams/lakota

And, 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.