EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. – Amid the dark clouds of the ongoing recession, the Cheyenne River Youth Project in Eagle Butte, S.D., is hoping to bring the light of hope, joy and holiday cheer to more than 1,000 children on the 2.8-million-acre Cheyenne River Reservation.
Santa with local children and their Christmas gifts during Christmas Toy Drive 2008.
Once again, the grassroots youth project is gearing up for its annual Christmas Toy Drive, and staff and volunteers are working hard to connect CRYP supporters around the world with children hoping to see their Christmas wishes come true.
That support is much needed here on north-central South Dakota’s high prairie. With a 75 percent unemployment rate, the destructive impact of alcoholism and drug abuse, minimal resources and lack of new opportunities, facing the holiday season and the start of a new year can be a grim task. This year will see even more challenges, with the nation and much of the world still reeling from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Yet CRYP is facing the season with its characteristic optimism and tenaciousness, which have served the organization well since its founding in 1988.
“We’ve faced so many daunting obstacles in 21 years,” observed Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “We’ve gotten creative, we’ve reached out, and we’ve never given up. That’s why we’re still here.”
Garreau credits the ever-growing network of partner organizations, donors and volunteers with the enduring success of the toy drive, which CRYP began more than 10 years ago.
“The toy drive wouldn’t be possible without the financial contributions, gift donations and volunteer time provided by CRYP’s supporters,” she said. “And we need our friends this year more than ever. We’re encouraging everyone to spread the word among friends and family members who might be interested in helping with this year’s drive.”
Each year, Cheyenne River’s children write letters to Santa during the fall months, and then CRYP forwards their letters to churches, service groups, individual donors and various other organizations for fulfillment. The youth project purchases any necessary additional items with donated funds. For the third year in a row, CRYP is handling more than 1,000 “Dear Santa” letters, an enormous undertaking that will require significant resources.
“We’ve already received a generous $1,000 contribution from the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation,” Garreau said. “In the past, other primary supporters have included our affiliates, Christian Relief Services Charities and Running Strong for American Indian Youth; the St. Louis chapter of CRYP, headed by Joyce Smith and Marla and Neal Fix; and Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado.”
Community, state, nationwide and even global partnerships are invaluable to the Christmas Toy Drive, and this is particularly true when it comes to volunteers. Many former CRYP volunteers, who spent weeks or even months at the Main Youth Center and Cokata Wiconi Teen Center, return for the Christmas season to help sort and wrap packages and assist with distribution and delivery. These volunteers come from around the country and from as far away as England, Ireland and Germany.
Former long-term volunteer and current CRYP special projects manager Benjamin Cranham will travel from his London home again this year to serve as the Christmas Toy Drive coordinator. He will join CRYP staff, resident long-term volunteers and toy drive volunteers from the community and around the world at the Cokata Wiconi Teen Center on CRYP’s East Lincoln Street campus, where they will work around the clock to ensure the gifts are sorted, wrapped and ready for family pickup or delivery.
CRYP makes sure that at least one or two items on the children’s Santa lists will be waiting for them at Cokata Wiconi on Christmas Eve. As part of the Santa letter, the youth project also asks for their clothing and shoe sizes so staff and volunteers can add some much-needed gifts to the delivery.
In the program’s early years, CRYP was able to hand-deliver all gifts to families. As the program has grown, however, the youth project relies on extra help from families and friends within the Cheyenne River communities to help with distribution, and the call for assistance has been met with joy and excitement. Families may also pick up their packages at the Eagle Butte youth center, where children may visit with Santa.
“Christmas with the Cheyenne River Youth Project has given me the greatest joy I could possibly imagine,” said Alexandra Meador, CRYP’s youth programs director. “Reading all of the children’s letters to Santa, turning the gym into Santa’s workshop, dressing up as an elf or Santa, unloading presents under an otherwise empty tree and seeing the light in the children’s eyes.”
A hug from Santa Claus during Christmas Toy Drive 2007.
Meador acknowledged that these are difficult economic times for everyone, but she said the team is finding extra inspiration for this year’s drive in the memory of one special woman: Iyonne Garreau, mother of Julie Garreau and a respected Cheyenne River elder also known as Winyan Toka Win (“Leading Lady” in Lakota). Iyonne passed away in April.
“Her encouragement, infectious spirit and endless parade of exuberant holiday sweaters and jewelry inspired generations of Christmas volunteers,” Meador explained, “and it was her giving spirit that inspired her daughter to create the program in the first place.”
Iyonne and her husband raised three of their five children in Cheyenne River’s White Horse community. For Christmas, she hand-crafted a pillow for every child, and tied the pillows together with ribbon for each family, attaching a special note for each child. Her own children delivered the pillows door to door, and if Iyonne missed someone, she would make another pillow on the spot so no one would go without.
“Year after year, Iyonne supported our cause with the same passion, volunteering through blizzards and sickness,” Meador said. “She was our champion. She let nothing stand in her way; she knew what our Christmas program meant for Cheyenne River’s children. This year, although Iyonne won’t be there physically, she will continue to inspire our work.”
Every contribution, no matter the size, will ensure that Cheyenne River’s children will receive the best gift of all: Hope.
To learn more about the Cheyenne River Youth Project, and for information about making donations and volunteering, call (605) 964-8200 or visit CRYP’s Web site. And, to stay up to date on the latest CRYP news and events, visit the youth project’s Facebook group and cause page.
Ways to help CRYP’s 2009 Christmas Toy Drive • Make a tax-deductible donation by sending cash, a check or a money order to: The Cheyenne River Youth Project, P.O. Box 410, Eagle Butte, SD 57625. • Make a tax-deductible donation via PayPal on the CRYP Web site. • Donate a gift. See the most-requested-gift list below or, to request a specific “letter to Santa,” contact CRYP Family Services at (605) 964-8200 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. • Donate gift cards, wrapping paper, tape or anything else that might assist in toy drive preparations. • Consider donating a Santa suit, as CRYP’s existing suits are getting old and a bit musty. • Spread the word. If you have friends or family members who might like to make a donation, please let them know how they can help.