When young children participate in their first programs or activities at the Cheyenne River Youth Project, they’re embarking on a journey that likely will continue through their teen years and into their adult lives. One child might drop into The Main for arts and crafts, another might enjoy playing in the new playground or joining friends in something more structured like Bike Club.

Or, a child might want to learn how to care for the plants in CRYP’s Winyan Toka Win (Leading Lady) Garden. When young Eagle Butte resident Mason Arpan saw young people at work in the garden, he knew that was something he wanted to do—and not just through The Main’s Garden Club. He was interested in the Native Food Sovereignty Internship for older youth.

Mason’s interests already were geared toward the outdoors. He had just started his own lawn-care business, Ship Shape Lawns, which he called both an interest and a hobby.

“I had always wanted to own a business, but my mom would never let me because I was too young,” says Mason, now 12. “Finally, when I turned 9, she let me.”

At around the same time, Mason discovered CRYP programming through Winyan Toka Win.

“I told my mom that I wanted to work in the garden like the kids I used to see,” he remembers. “The internship really appealed to me, because it would provide educational experiences and an opportunity to learn job skills that could be a part of my life in future internships and jobs.”

Mason has completed his Native Food Sovereignty Internship, in which he learned to plant, care for, and harvest the crops in conjunction with his team. 

“I enjoyed learning how to plant and grow food so that, one day, I can start my own garden,” he says. “I also can help the elderly in our community with their gardens and expand my business services. I’m sure there are a few grandmas and grandpas or busy people that need their gardens weeded or harvested. Now that I know more about the work it takes to have a garden, I will be able to provide those services as well.”

He also has completed a Social Enterprise Internship, which allowed him to work in the Keya Cafe’s commercial kitchen—prepping food, taking food and beverage orders, and developing his customer service skills. And, he had the opportunity to work in the Keya Gift Shop; cafe and gift shop are both part of CRYP’s Cokata Wiconi (Center of Life) facility and are cornerstones of its social enterprise initiatives.

“I enjoyed working in the gift shop,” Mason says. “I learned how to market the products to appeal to customers, making sure they all looked professional and organized. What I found most challenging was learning the point-of-sale machine, and keeping up with the customer flow during the cafe’s lunch rush, but I always focused on my customer service skills and tried to smile through the panicked feeling!

“The other thing I felt was challenging was the interview,” he continues, “but I learned a lot, and it was a good experience that prepared me for my USD Governors Camp Scholarship interview.” 

Mason says he appreciates the training he received through the internship program, including certifications in CPR and First Aid. And, he’s continued to pursue new opportunities through CRYP, including Lakota language immersion classes and serving as a volunteer “Santa’s helper” during the annual Christmas Toy Drive. 

“CRYP is special because it offers young kids like me the opportunity to create our job and people skills, so we can build a better future for ourselves,” Mason says. “The youth project has helped me get ahead of the game. It gives kids a chance to understand what it’s like to have a job, and a lot of kids might not get that anywhere else until they are older. It’s important to the Cheyenne River community, and I plan on attending more activities and programs in the coming years.”

Mason continues to operate Ship Shape Lawns, which he admits was challenging this summer because he had to balance his customers’ needs with his educational goals and being with his family. When he does have some free time, he enjoys bicycling, football, archery, swimming, fishing and hunting.

“I’d like to live in the Black Hills someday, so I can go hunting and fishing whenever I want,” he says. (He would like to visit the ocean, perhaps in California or Hawaii.)

Mason has big plans for his future. He’s thinking of pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science, followed by a master’s degree in criminal justice.

“I think, with those degrees, I can help my community be safer for kids and families,” he explains. “I’d like to be able to solve crimes with the help of computers. I eventually want to be an investigator, or a K-9 officer. If it’s possible, I want to be both in my lifetime.”

Mason says he definitely wants to help his community, which he loves very much. For now, he takes pride in doing that through his own business.

“I’m a part of making it look nice with every lawn I mow, which makes me feel good,” he says. “I realize that there are other business owners that help our community too, and that’s great, because it’s like we’re part of a big team.”