Project provides opportunities for the future

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Cheyenne Ricer Youth Project

EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. - The future of most Great Plains reservations lies with their young people, but very few projects or activities to help shape their future are available.

On the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, a youth project that started almost 20 years ago is making a difference in the lives of many youth, many of whom are now young adults. One-half of the population of the Cheyenne River Reservation is under the age of 18 and the Cheyenne River Youth Project will not only make a difference in their lives, but in the future of the reservation as well.

The youth project started with a small center on Main Street in Eagle Butte, the reservation's tribal headquarters community, and has grown to accommodate most youth and teens from across the reservation. The Main, the first facility, is now joined by the new teen center, an upscale facility that will provide a much-needed gathering place, educational facility and sports complex.

The driving force behind the entire project and the facilities is Executive Director Julie Garreau. She has been with the project since the beginning.

Children ages 4 - 12 spend their spare time at the project studying, listening to stories, telling stories, eating, going to parties and gardening.

''When we are working in the garden, they [the children] talk; they remember when their grandmother had a garden. You have to have a voice,'' Garreau said of the children.

''The honor should be ours that they let us into their lives. It's an honor when they open up to you,'' Garreau said.

Garreau said the young people love the volunteers who come from all across the country and from some foreign countries. The volunteers bring feelings and passion.

''They help shape them as successful adults,'' she said.

Garreau said the staff and volunteers spend a lot of time building relationships with the children and not a lot of time talking to the adults, which has become a source of criticism. But Garreau asks critics to join the volunteers and staff to reach out to the kids.

''Society holds the poverty line, but we teach thriving - that's what we need to do. We say how it is supposed to be,'' Garreau said.

She is not a trained educator or child psychologist, but according to volunteers and local parents, what is happening at the youth project and The Main is working.

''I didn't and I don't know the answers. I have to work things out. I listen to the kids. I enjoy them,'' Garreau said.

If there is a special needs child, specialists in child development will be asked to add their input so the staff and volunteers can work productively with that child.

''I like to hear the kids laughing and having fun. Those moments are important, they grow up too fast.

''We set the bar higher and they are capable, we don't pity them. Kids need challenges,'' Garreau said.

To get through the day, a great deal of creativity is needed by staff and volunteers; but in the end, all agreed that it is worth the effort.

What is important is that the community has a say in their future, and the youth project listens and also tries to get others to listen.

''This is our community; listen to us. The government told us how to be, what to wear - we are sovereign,'' Garreau said.

Some programs dictated by the government and others don't work; there are people in need and ideas must be looked at differently, Garreau argues. That's what the youth project does.

If a child receives some school supplies, for example, that gesture could have a long-term positive effect.

''There is so much potential on this reservation. We started with 'let's just do things with kids,' and that leads to something else,'' Garreau said.

The youth project and facilities rely solely on donations. Money is usually tight, but somehow projects get done.

''It's about making a quality of life, not about money. The kids should have a place to call home,'' Garreau said.