We were once again able to bring hope, joy and more than a little magic to the children on the Cheyenne River reservation during the 2012 holiday season.

Thanks to the steadfast, generous support of these invaluable partners, not to mention the hard work and dedication of a small army of volunteers, CRYP’s 2012 Christmas Toy Drive served 1,200 children in 20 communities. Their “Dear Santa” letters came from 275 families, regular attendees at the Cokata Wiconi teen center and The Main youth center, and children who live in shelters and foster care.

“We’re thrilled with this year’s outreach,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “The Christmas Toy Drive has become our largest program by far, allowing us to serve children in Eagle Butte, Swift Bird, Cherry Creek, Lantry, Red Scaffold, Thunder Butte, White Horse, Bear Creek, Green Grass, Ridgeview, La Plant, Dupree, On The Tree, Timber Lake, Isabel, Paradise, Takini, Sans Arc, Blackfoot and Faith.”

To bring Christmas cheer to so many young people, donations poured into Eagle Butte from around the country. Alexandria, Virginia-based Running Strong for American Indian Youth sent a truck, as did the St. Louis Chapter of CRYP in Missouri. Co-chaired by Jennifer Counts and Nita Holt, the Missouri toy drive effort also incorporated members of Lt. Tom Koch’s SWAT team from St. Charles, who loaded all the gifts.

A third truck, a massive 26-footer, arrived from Colorado just prior to the holidays, loaded to the roof with gifts for more than 800 children. Students at Fairview High School in Boulder, led by senior Taylor Kessock, fulfilled approximately 650 “Dear Santa” letters. The other Colorado gifts came from University Bicycles in Boulder, from Louisville-based law firm Fredericks Peebles & Morgan and from Deborah Smith, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who lives in Colorado Springs.

Smith coordinated donations for 138 children from schools, businesses, individuals and church communities in Colorado Springs and Denver. On December 19, she and her two grandchildren drove a 14-foot trailer to Fairview High School to meet the rental truck bound for Cheyenne River.

Additional financial contributions came from the National Indian Gaming Association, Running Strong for American Indian Youth, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation’s Christmas Fund, the Office of South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan V. Johnson and regional Rotary

Clubs from South Dakota and Minnesota.

Once all the gifts were stacked in “Santa’s Workshop” at the Cokata Wiconi teen center, a dedicated group of elves got to work sorting and wrapping: Laura Copeland and Peter Clark, both of San Francisco; Winifred Kelly of Ireland; Julie Veal of San Diego; David Harper and Craig Martin, both of Indiana; Lizzy Carr of Virginia; Aeri Alexander and Laure Lachaud, both of New York; Jackson Hickey, his father, Ken, and his sister, Liz, all of Massachusetts; and Diana Ewert-Altenhain of Germany. While some of these volunteers were experiencing their first Christmas on Cheyenne River, many have returned every year to spend the holidays at what they consider their home away from home.

On December 20, a deluge of community members joined the fun, helping to sort and wrap the last gifts for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day pickups and distributions. Together, staff and volunteers went through more than 100 rolls of tape and more than a mile of gift wrapping. And they provided a joyous holiday for 1,200 children. Garreau said she received a particularly poignant phone call after the holiday.

“The call was about three little girls who had received gifts from CRYP,” she recalled. “Apparently, our gifts were the only gifts they received for Christmas, and when they saw that they each had four gifts, they jumped up and down screaming, before they’d even seen their toys. That, in a nutshell, is why we do what we do. It’s why we work so hard, and it’s why our volunteers give up the holidays with their own families and friends.”

“I’ve been here since September, and I’ve found the toy drive to be the most rewarding experience I’ve had at CRYP,” said volunteer Jackson Hickey. “I sorted and wrapped gifts, and I was one of our Santas, so I took photos with the children when they came to pick up their gifts. I also went out on deliveries on Christmas Eve. The highlight of my Christmas was seeing the faces of the many children I’ve come to know light up at the sight of Santa coming into their houses to put presents under often empty trees.”

Santa brought happiness to the grown-ups as well. Tammy Eagle Hunter, CRYP’s wellness coordinator, reported that one mother cried when they spoke after Christmas.

“She said this past year had been really tough for her family financially, and without the Christmas Toy Drive, they would not have been able to give presents to their children,” Eagle Hunter said. “She said it meant a lot to her that we have a program that can help when you truly need it. She said she’s been a Family Services member for years but never realized how amazing it is until this year — when it truly did save Christmas.”