October marked a both a happy leap forward and a return to deeply embedded roots for the Cheyenne River Youth Project. After two long years of program disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, CRYP finally was able to reopen “The Main,” its youth center dedicated to 4- to 12-year-olds.

What makes that particularly special is that CRYP’s journey began with The Main 34 years ago this month. According to Executive Director Julie Garreau, that little youth center was the foundation for what is now a 5-acre campus in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.

“When we first opened the doors in 1988, we were a one-room, volunteer-run youth center in a former bar on Main Street,” Garreau explained. “We focused on providing safe spaces, positive mentors, and healthy meals and snacks for our vulnerable young children, who too often didn’t have anywhere else to go after school. 

“Even after all these years, we feel the heart of our mission when we play with the little ones, help them with their homework, and see their joy when they share a meal, a birthday party or a special occasion with us and their friends,” she continued. “Some may go on to pursue internship opportunities at our Čhokáta Wičhóni (Center of Life) teen center, or Lakota Art Fellowships at our Waniyetu Wowapi (Winter Count) Institute & Art Park. Beyond that, they become our community’s next generation of leaders, entrepreneurs and culture bearers. But this is our first chance to spend time with them, to encourage them, and to show them how loved and precious they are.”

The after-school program at The Main takes place every Monday through Friday at 4-6 p.m. Each day involves a mix of Lakota culture, arts and crafts, and physical activity; according to CRYP Program Manager Jerica Widow, it’s very much a team effort.

“Ryanne Nezzie, Julia Cook and Christina Bear Stops, our programs assistants, supervise the children during the after-school program,” she said. “Art Manager Wakinyan Chief helps structure the art-related activities, and our teen Art Interns provide additional support. Everyone works together to create a really fun and engaging environment for our younger children.” 

Art activities this month included painting/coloring feathers, making mini dream catchers, making bracelets, painting, coloring fall-themed images, creating chalk images, making paper mache rattles, and making/painting mini tipis. Art and culture intersected in a popular project involving festive medicine-wheel sugar cookies.

Food and culture also came together when the children learned to make wasna, a sacred traditional food comprising dried bison, dried chokecherries, and tallow or fat.

In addition, the children enjoyed play time in CRYP’s full-size gymnasium, playground and art park. They even had an opportunity to learn some Lakota sign language.

“We’re really happy with the structure of the after-school program and are looking forward to continuing it through the end of November,” Widow said. “At that point, we’ll close our teen and youth centers until after the New Year’s holiday so we can focus on the Wo Otúh’an Wi Toy Drive, which serves roughly 1,500 children on our reservation.”

The CRYP staff is looking forward to resuming the many beloved, long-running programs that have been on hold for more than two years. These include Main University, an award-winning, multiple-week program that allows children to take short courses that mimic those taught in a classroom setting, graduate with their peers, and celebrate their achievements with family and friends.

The Main’s popular programs also include Summer Literacy, wellness initiatives like Walking Club and Bike Club, and even monthly birthday parties for all the children whose birthdays fall in a given month. According to Garreau, these are foundational programs for the youth project — building blocks for everything that comes later, when the children transition to the teen center.

“Words cannot express our precious these little children are to us,” she said. “They are our wakanyeja, our sacred beings, and we’ve missed them. We’re so excited to welcome them back.” 

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, Instagram, and YouTube.

The Cheyenne River Youth Project is dedicated to giving our Lakota youth and families access to the culturally relevant, enriching, and enduring opportunities we need to build stronger, healthier communities and a more vibrant future together.