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Cheyenne River Youth Project Gives Its Children a Better Life

An article about the Cheyenne River Youth Project, which aims to help disadvantaged American Indian children via arts and crafts.

As the autumn sun blazed crimson and gold on the western horizon and shadows lengthened, the orange tractor plied back and forth along rows of pale cornstalks. Days were getting shorter on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s South Dakota reservation, but master farmer Romey Garreau was still at work. That evening, he was plowing under the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s (CRYP) garden and putting most of the two-acre tract to sleep after yet another bountiful season. Only a row of fall raspberries was still bearing, thorny branches festooned with fat scarlet fruit.

The garden, in the tribe’s capital Eagle Butte, may have been quiet and serene, but the adjacent youth center was bustling. Teens were doing homework in the Internet café, while little ones were in the gymnasium, noisily negotiating an obstacle course of big cardboard boxes. Soon, they’d all have healthy dinners, made with produce from the garden.

“A lot of our children live on commodity and packaged foods, and the garden teaches them to appreciate healthy fruits and vegetables,” says Cheyenne River Youth Project’s founder and executive director, tribal member Julie Garreau, who is Romey’s niece. “Eating those foods also supports lifelong wellness, helping prevent diabetes and other chronic illnesses.” She adds that the little kids’ garden club is most involved in the plot, but at harvest time, there’s so much work, the teens help out, too. Everyone enjoys planting and picking—even weeding.

The garden’s usefulness doesn’t stop there, though. Everything at the youth project has multiple purposes, Julie explains. Corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, chilies, greens and berries are donated to elders and a women’s shelter; sold at a farmers market by teens learning about entrepreneurship and nutrition; or canned or dried and sold in the project’s gift shop.

An average of 75 kids ages 4 to 18 show up at the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s center after school to participate in physical activities ranging from basketball and running to ballet and yoga. They can choose among myriad enrichment courses tailored to their age groups. Art, science, reading, writing, geography, financial literacy, nutrition and healthy cooking—even Chinese language and comic books—are on the menu. Permanent staffers and participants in an international internship program offer some courses; tribal members, such as artist Wyatt Blue Coat (see sidebar, below), teach in their subject areas as well. On a recent evening, adult community members joined teens for a small-business development class with Mark Peacock, author of The Financially Literate Teacher and entrepreneurship instructor for Four Bands Community Fund, a Cheyenne River nonprofit that helps tribal members form enterprises. Fashion shows, midnight basketball, DJ-run dances and other special events keep the youth center hopping.

CRYP’s internship program is another multipurpose endeavor, according to Garreau: “The interns are helping out, but they’re also learning about us. They become our ambassadors, and through them we educate the world about who we are.” A recent group included college-age kids from the U.S., Australia, Belgium and China. Over the years, church groups have sent volunteers, and students have come from Oberlin College, Iowa State University, Rice University and many other schools.

Camille LaPlante, who was brought up in Texas, was in college in California when her grandfather, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member, encouraged her to visit during winter break and get to know the community. She volunteered at CRYP, loved it and stayed on as a youth programs assistant. “I learned to cook, too,” she says. “Before I came here, I could make noodles. Now I’ve got recipes from elders for apple butter, stuffed winter squash and other yummy foods. I can make pickles and salsa. My taste has really expanded.”

Regardless of whether interns are related to anyone at Cheyenne River, they inevitably become members of the family, says Garreau: “They sacrifice a lot, and we appreciate their efforts so much. It’s not an easy job.”

Garreau has won many awards (including one bestowed by President George H.W. Bush and the 2009 Spirit of Dakota Award) for developing the center from a one-room facility in 1988 into a major community organization with a campus that has classrooms and a playground for children ages 4 to 12; a place for 13-to-18-year-olds with a computer lab, library, art studio and professional kitchen; and a family-services program offering winter coats, school supplies, free home repairs, heating assistance and a Dear Santa program that delivers gifts to about 1,000 kids each Christmas.

The teen center is the latest addition to the campus. Opened in 2007, Cokata Wiconi (“center of life”) is built around a curving, blue-walled center hallway that evokes the nearby life-giving Cheyenne River. Lined with framed photographs and historical documents, the passageway honors the tribe’s history and survival. A painful moment in that story prompted construction of the building—in the early 2000s, a wave of teen suicides shocked the reservation, says Garreau, and the community searched for a way to reach out to its youth. Garreau went to local high schools, asked students what they wanted, and partnered with the Native nonprofit Running Strong for American Indian Youth to give them a safe place to gather and enjoy themselves.

Tribal member Billie Condon, who runs CRYP’s elite Power of Four program for high school kids, pointed to bright posters in the art studio, where the teens expressed their goals: Leadership, job skills, life skills and wellness. To achieve them, the program’s 10 students spruce up the community, visit tribal council meetings, keep fit and learn to plan and cook healthy meals. For this, they receive a monthly honorarium, Condon reports.

For some projects, the small group is joined by a larger cadre of teen volunteers. The kids recently painted trash cans for the town, populating the playground and baseball field with vivid images of eagles, pandas and video-game characters. They cleaned up any trash they found and celebrated their achievement with a sleepover at the center, says Megan Guiliano, youth programs director. But the sleepover had, of course,

Dancers of the Damelahamid at the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival in British Columbia.

Garreau, a prodigious multitasker, is working on building an endowment for the project.

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more than one purpose, because the youngsters also took time to make up gift packages for veterans, with goodies, necessities and a thank-you card, which they then distributed on Veterans Day.

Though Cheyenne River Youth Project’s growth has been prodigious, it’s been carefully planned and managed. In the beginning, the organization had nothing, Garreau says, “so we learned to live that way and to be cautious about fund-raising.” The group does apply for and receive grants, she says, but that’s not the focus. “To make a project work—and last—you have to develop a local base. A sustainable organization has grassroots people involved for the long run. Otherwise, when an infusion of funding is over, everyone packs up and goes home.”

Nothing has to happen fast, she explains: “Things occur when they’re supposed to. This place is about embracing difficulties that have occurred in our history, seeking ways to heal and saying, ‘We’re taking care of ourselves.’?”

Garreau recalls a childhood hero, school bus driver Adele LeCompte, who one day got a disabled bus going by forming a fuse out of the foil wrapping from a stick of gum. “I’ll never forget that moment. I was in seventh grade, and I was so impressed. Here at CRYP, we always look for ways to apply that initiative and resourcefulness—figure it out and get it done.”

To continue the project’s slow-and-steady growth, Garreau is building an endowment, encouraging staff to create manuals for their positions and hiring a development director. “We have to ensure that if any individual moves on, this organization continues,” she says. “We want to be here for generations to come.”

Since grant-making groups usually want to fund exciting new projects, rather than less-glamorous routine expenses, Garreau instituted the Keep The Lights On fund drive and the Sponsor A Day program, which allow CRYP’s many supporters, local and worldwide, to keep the space warm and well-lit. Meeting daily costs are an ongoing issue, and during these chilly days, while the children are in school, staffers work in parkas to save the building’s heat for the kids.

Garreau’s leadership style may be laid-back, but the lady herself is a bundle of energy, a multitasker and a prolific e-mailer and texter. She has also been observed—Cheyenne River residents take note—reading the newspaper while driving. “I was interested in that article about the greenhouse,” she explains defensively. “Besides, I know this road well.”

That’s true. And knowing the land is all-important, she said. The youth project’s efforts keep Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s children happy and healthy by connecting them to their community and the rolling hills and expansive valleys of their homeland. Back at the garden, master farmer Garreau was resting against his tractor in the waning light. “It was a good year,” he said, looking at the rich brown dirt. “Everything happened at the right time.”


Weaving Dreams

Thirty-one-year-old Wyatt Blue Coat, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, has been an artist since he was about 15, when he started taking every opportunity he could to observe Timothy Swimmer, a fellow tribal member and artist, at work. “I’d drop by his house and watch him paint and draw,” he says. “He’s much admired around here. If you go down Main Street in town, you’ll see his murals.”

Now Blue Coat, an ex-Marine, is the mentor, teaching art classes at Cheyenne River Youth Project (CRYP). His students can admire his lovingly crafted dreamcatchers, most of which sell for $40 to $75, in the window of the project’s gift shop. “After I wrap the leather on a ring, a picture of the dreamcatcher comes to me, and I add the color and feather elements. To me, the feathers are what make the design.”

Lakotas believe good dreams stay in the web, while bad ones pass through and disappear, Blue Coat explains. “That’s why we hang them above the bed, though nowadays some people consider them simply decorative objects.”

The dreamcatchers are available at CRYP’s gift shop, along with other local specialties: braids of dried prairie turnips, a longtime Lakota/Dakota favorite that can be cooked in soups and stews; salsas, pickles, jams and other prepared foods made with produce from the youth project’s garden; and clothes such as T-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with CRYP’s logo. For availability, prices and shipping costs, call 605-964-8200.