Due to the number of novel coronavirus cases on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, the Cheyenne River Youth Project moved on July 8 to stop all on-site youth programs, including teen internships. In an abundance of caution, the nonprofit youth organization ensured that all of its staff would be tested for Covid-19 the same week.

Fortunately, all staff members’ test results came back negative, and by the end of July, CRYP resumed its Native Food Sovereignty teen internship on July 22 and began recruiting for the next cohort of Art interns. In addition, the youth project will be offering four youth art camps in August.

According to Jerica Widow, CRYP’s youth programs director, the food sovereignty interns were eager to get back to work in the 2.5-acre, naturally grown Winyan Toka Win (Leading Lady) Garden.

“We have 14 kids spending about four hours in the garden each day until Aug. 6,” Widow said. “The garden gives us a hands-on outdoor classroom for these young people, who are learning to plant and care for garden crops, and harvest our locally grown produce when it’s ready. Along the way, they’re strengthening their connection with the earth and with their traditional Lakota life ways, which is especially important right now. 

“In times of crisis, we know we need to engage with our youth as often as we can, reinforce lessons that connect back to ancestors and culture, and keep them active outdoors,” she continued. “The kids respond; they couldn’t wait to return to our campus and get back into the garden.”

As the Native Food Sovereignty cohort wraps up its internship next week, the Art interns will get started on their next session. And, staff has been arranging its next set of youth art camps: all-natural medicines with Julia Williams, which will include sanitizer and DIY all-purpose cleaner, at 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on July 28-30; soap-making with Dawnee LeBeau at 2-3 p.m. on Aug. 3-5; storytelling and beading with husband-and-wife team Jeremy and Collins Fields at 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Aug. 4-6; and moccasin-making with Jozee Campos at 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Aug. 18-20.

“We’re grateful that we can offer these opportunities for our youth to have access to arts, culture, education, and inspiration with positive role models in safe spaces,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “These young people need to be able to just be kids, for a day or at least a few hours. 

“They have to grow up fast on Cheyenne River under the best of circumstances, and the public health emergency compounds the challenges they face on a daily basis,” she explained. “They rely on us, and we always will be here for them.”

That has meant weeks of brainstorming and hard work at the CRYP campus. Without volunteer support, staff members transformed the Cokata Wiconi (Center of Life) gymnasium into a safe, socially distant learning center. They installed a new Internet line, and guaranteed that youth would have the Chromebooks they needed to access online instruction. They sourced plenty of face masks and hand sanitizer, and they set up a rigorous cleaning schedule for their facilities. 

And, while preparing takeout meals for the public, making and delivering daily meals to children across the community, fulfilling online Keya Gift Shop orders, maintaining all facilities, and working hard in garden, they also managed to continue delivering innovative, thoughtful, culturally relevant programming. That has included “Cheyenne River Fights Covid-19” art and writing contests, giving youth an opportunity to express and share their own feelings. 

“We know art heals, just as safe spaces and mentorship heal,” Garreau said. “When crisis strikes, too often we adults get bogged down in making all the decisions for the greater good, and we forget to ask our children what they think. It’s important that we listen to their voices, and that we let them know how much their voices matter.”

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 lakotayouth.org. And, to stay up to date on the latest CRYP news and events, follow the youth project on Facebook (/LakotaYouth), Twitter (@LakotaYouth) and Instagram (@lakotayouth and @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.