Cheyenne River Youth Project continues limited programs and services during COVID-19 crisis
Cheyenne River Youth Project
The Cheyenne River Youth Project has seen a lot of ups and downs in its nearly 32-year history, including the Great Recession. Now it’s facing what might be its biggest challenge yet: the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet this grassroots nonprofit youth organization is meeting that challenge head-on. Not only is Cheyenne River Youth Project continuing to offer modified internship programming, it also has devised new, creative ways to continue serving the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation community throughout the crisis.
“Right now, we’re continuing to welcome our teen interns to Cokata Wiconi (Center of Life) for education and instruction,” said Julie Garreau, Cheyenne River Youth Project’s executive director. “Our cohorts are less than 10 kids each, and we have plenty of space, so we can adhere to social distancing guidelines while providing key pieces of our internship training. We also follow rigorous hygiene protocols to ensure the safety of our staff and our young people.”
The Native Wellness interns are currently in the middle of their program, while the Art interns have completed theirs. Cheyenne River Youth Project staff already is recruiting to fill the spring Indigenous Cooking Internship Program and Art Internship Program; each program has room for six teen interns.
“Not all of our kids are safer at home, unfortunately,” Garreau said. “They rely on us to be there for them, and that’s more important than ever during a public health emergency. They’ve lost school, they’ve lost after-school activities, they’ve lost part-time jobs and access to positive role models—they need us. And, to be honest, we need them! So we are willing to do whatever it takes to keep our doors open in some fashion.”
The youth project’s staff members share Garreau’s dedication, and they employ impressive resourcefulness on a daily basis as they devise new approaches to programming. One of those staff members is Tyler Read, Cheyenne River Youth Project’s art director.
“We’re absolutely dedicated to serving our youth against all odds, trials, and tribulations,” he said. “We do this in a variety of ways. My role is to help them explore their creativity through art; as I read through our kids’ journal entries, I see how critical this is right now, with all the chaos and uncertainty around us. Our kids need something to help reduce stress and anxiety, take them out of survival mode, and put them into a place where they can reconnect with their creative spirit so they don’t burn out.”
The teens have indeed been forthcoming in their journal entries, sharing thoughts such as, “The internship made me forget that I’m alone,” “I love it here, because I have a little bit of purpose to my life,” “I never really thought one little drawing could have so much meaning,” and “Being here felt great; seeing everyone and interacting was wonderful.”
Read also advised that he is researching additional options to help support his art interns, noting that Cheyenne River Youth Project needs to be prepared for what the future holds.
“I’m exploring what digital platforms are best for our interns, in sanitized computer spaces with strict social-distancing parameters,” he explained. “And as the weather improves, I’m also looking at outdoor activities in the Waniyetu Wowapi (Winter Count) Art Park. However this unfolds, we are committed to offering our youth an outlet for the concerns they have during this difficult time.”
In addition to the teen internship programs, Cheyenne River Youth Project is developing a space in its Cokata Wiconi gymnasium for young people to do their classwork while the schools are closed, and staff members are distributing balanced, hearty evening meals each day to ensure a degree of food security.
“Those numbers are growing by the day,” Garreau said. “As word spread through our community, we started seeing upward of 50 children each evening; and now, as we’re reaching teens as well, we expect to see those numbers go to 100, 150, and perhaps even higher.”
Social enterprises are still bustling at the youth project, as well. Shoppers may purchase a variety of gift items through the Keya Gift Shop online store at lakotayouth.org/shop, with proceeds benefiting Cheyenne River Youth Project directly. The community may purchase takeout meals through the on-site Keya Cafe & Coffee Shop. And, as summer weather approaches, Cheyenne River Youth Project will begin food service through its Turtle Island Food Truck.
“We’re so grateful to our staff members, who are working incredibly hard every day to serve meals, provide internship instruction and safe learning spaces, maintain our facilities without volunteer support, and so much more,” Garreau said. “We’re also thankful to the partners and individuals across the country who are providing their support in so many ways. Together, we’ll get through this, and come out on the other side stronger and more resilient than ever.”