CHRISTMAS ON THE RESERVATION
For the past 25 years, Cheyenne River Youth Project (CRYP) has worked hard to provide personalized Christmas gifts for the children of the families participating in its Family Services Program. In 2014, CRYP was able to provide Christmas gifts to 1,350 children in 20 communities across the 2.8-million-acre Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Since 2010, AIM, through its Friends of Lakota Youth Team, has been one of the organizations which partners with CRYP to make this Christmas miracle a reality.
According to Julie Garreau, CRYP's Executive Director, the personal touch is what makes the Annual Toy Drive so unique. “On Christmas morning, children all over the world delight in receiving the gifts from Santa Claus for which they hoped and dreamed. It’s part of the magic of the holiday, and we strongly believe that our kids deserve that magic too. So, when we first started the Christmas Toy Drive in 1990, we were adamant that our kids weren’t going to just receive gifts that were listed for ‘girl, age 3’ and ‘boy, age 10.’ The gifts are addressed to them personally, and they come directly from the children’s ‘Dear Santa’ letters.
“That’s so important,” she continued, “because for those kids, the personalized gifts mean that someone really does care about them. They will know how special they are, and that they are treasured.”
This is a big deal on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, where most families simply cannot stretch their budgets to cover holiday gifts. This is one of the poorest regions in the United States, with an unemployment rate hovering around 75 percent, and roughly 60 percent of households with children under the age of 18 falling below the poverty level. That means far too many children likely would have no Christmas at all. For Garreau and the rest of her team, that is simply unacceptable; so, each year, they work hard to bring Christmas to the Reservation.
The journey starts each September and doesn’t finish until the end of the day on December 25. CRYP staff members reach out to partners around the world to marshal the resources they need to fulfill hundreds upon hundreds of “Dear Santa” letters. From Virginia and St. Louis to Colorado and the Dakotas, individuals, schools, not-for-profit organizations and businesses gather as many gifts as they can before loading up rented or borrowed trucks and sending them out across the frozen prairie.
Volunteers then converge on Eagle Butte as the gifts roll in. These volunteers will opt to miss the holidays with their own families so they can travel across the country, and from as far away as Europe, to help. Staff, volunteers, and dedicated community members will work side by side, around the clock, wrapping thousands of gifts to make sure Santa will fulfill countless Christmas wishes and make so many Christmas dreams come true.
Each participating child receives gifts from his or her “Dear Santa” list, plus winter clothing and shoes. As those “Dear Santa” letters flood into the CRYP offices, staff and volunteers will solicit funds and in-kind donations from individuals and organizations around the world. Then, they match the Santa lists with just the right gifts and prepare beautifully wrapped packages for Christmas Eve pickups, which give children an opportunity to meet Santa, and Christmas Day deliveries, when Santa, Mrs. Claus, and the elves make the rounds in person.
For Friends of Lakota Youth, the process begins the first week of November when we receive the first batch of "Dear Santa" letters. Once these letters are received, the members of the Friends of Lakota Youth Team begin to contact donors from prior years to see if they are interested in "adopting" another child this Christmas. In addition, AIM partners with a number of area churches and distributes letter at those churches after services starting the second Sunday in November.
Upon "adopting" a child's "Dear Santa" letter, people purchase one or more of the gifts listed in the child's letter. Once these gifts are purchased they are dropped-off at one of the AIM drop-sites. Then, on the first or second Friday of December, the St. Charles County SWAT Team converges on AIM's main drop-site and packs all of these gifts in an 18-wheeler donated by Climate Express of Washington, Missouri for the trip to the Reservation.
Since 2010, AIM, through its Friends of Lakota Youth Team, has collected Christmas gifts for approximately 600 to 800 children each Christmas.
If you, your church, your school, or your organization are interested in learning more about becoming a part of the Friends of Lakota Youth Team and help them fill the Christmas dreams of literally hundreds of kids each Christmas, just click the box below.