Cultivating happy, healthy kids: A visit to the Cheyenne River Youth Project

Published in the Huffington Post in 2011. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

As the sun blazed crimson and gold on the western horizon and shadows lengthened, the orange tractor chugged 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 putting the Cheyenne River Youth Project's garden to sleep for the winter, plowing under most of the two-acre tract after yet another productive season. Only a row of fall raspberries was still bearing -- thorny branches festooned with fat scarlet fruit.
2011-12-19-hall.jpg     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 made 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," said Cheyenne River Youth Project's founder and director, tribal member Julie Garreau (shown here). "Eating those foods also supports lifelong wellness, helping prevent diabetes and other chronic illnesses." 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, Garreau said.
     The garden's usefulness doesn't stop there, though. Everything at the youth project has multiple purposes, according to Garreau. The corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, chilies, greens and berries are also donated to elders and a women's shelter; sold at a farmer's market by teens learning about entrepreneurship and nutrition; and canned or dried and sold in the center's gift shop.
2011-12-19-artclassbetter.jpg     An average of 75 kids ages 4 to 18 show up at CYRP 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. Classes in art (shown here, with youth programs assistant Camille LaPlante), 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, teach in their subject areas as well.
     On a recent evening, adult community members joined teens for a small-business development class (shown below) 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 their own companies. Fashion shows, midnight basketball, deejay-run dances and other special events keep the youth center hopping.
2011-12-19-bizclass300.jpg     CYRP's internship program is another multi-purpose 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 (shown below with youth programs director Megan Guiliano, standing). Over the years, church groups have sent volunteers, and students have come from Oberlin College, Iowa State, Rice University and many other schools. The interns inevitably become members of the family, according to Garreau: "They sacrifice a lot, and we appreciate their efforts so much. It's not an easy job, and we don't allow partying. They're taking care of children, who have to trust them completely."2011-12-19-internsbetter.jpg
     Garreau has won many awards, including one bestowed by President George H.W. Bush and the 2009 Spirit of South 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 4-12; a place for 13-18-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 (or "center of life") is designed around a curving, blue-walled center hallway that evokes the nearby life-giving Cheyenne River. Lined with framed photographs and historical documents, the passageway (shown at top in the photo of Garreau) honors the tribe's history and survival. A painful moment in that story prompted construction of the building; 2002 and 2003 saw a wave of teen suicides, said Garreau, and the shocked community wanted a way to reach out to its youth. Garreau went to local high schools, asked students what they wanted, and partnered with the Native American nonprofit Running Strong for American Indian Youth to give teens a safe place to gather and enjoy themselves.
2011-12-19-Billie.jpg     Tribal member Billie Condon (shown here), who runs CYRP'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 said.
     For some projects, the small group is joined by a larger cadre of teen volunteers. The kids recently painted trash cans for Eagle Butte, populating the playground and baseball field with vivid images of eagles, pandas and video-game characters (shown in the photo of Condon). The teenagers cleaned up any trash they found and celebrated their achievement with a sleepover at the center, said Guiliano. But the sleepover had, of course, 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 careful. In the beginning, the organization had nothing, Garreau said: "So we learned to live that way and to be cautious about fundraising." The group does apply for and receive grants, she said, 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."2011-12-19-texting.jpg
     Nothing has to happen fast, she added: "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 recalled 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, " Garreau said. "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 said. "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 on chilly days, while the children are in school, staffers work in parkas to save heat for the kids.2011-12-19-romey250.jpg
     Garreau's leadership style may be laid-back, but the lady herself is a bundle of energy, a multi-tasker and a prodigious e-mailer and texter. She's also been observed--Cheyenne River residents take note--reading the newspaper while driving. "I was interested in that article about the greenhouse," she replied 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 the 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 Romey Garreau (shown here) 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 Dreams2011-12-19-dream.jpg

Thirty-one-year-old Wyatt Blue Coat, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, has been an artist since he was about 15. That was 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's very much admired around here. If you go down Main Street in Eagle Butte, you'll see his murals," said Blue Coat.
     Now Blue Coat is the mentor. The ex-Marine teaches art classes to the youngsters who arrive for a wide range of after-school programs at Eagle Butte's Cheyenne River Youth Project. On the way to class, Blue Coat's students can admire his lovingly crafted dreamcatchers hanging in window of the youth project's gift shop (an example is shown here; most sell for $40–$75).

"After I wrap the leather on a ring, a picture of the dreamcatcher comes to me, and I add the color and feather elements," said Blue Coat. "To me, the feathers are what make the design."
2011-12-19-timp.jpg     Lakotas believe good dreams stay in the web, while bad ones pass through and disappear, Blue Coat said. "That's why we hang them above the bed, though nowadays some people consider them simply decorative objects." Do dreamcatchers work against insomnia, too, this reporter wondered, after noticing that effect? "They certainly can work that way," he said. Julie Garreau, director of the youth project, added that it's an interaction: "They work for you in the way you need."
Whether you're interested in sweet dreams, interesting gifts, or the chance to help a worthy organization, contact CYRP's shop at 605-964-8200 for a wide variety of home-made or wild-crafted products. 

Text and photographs c. Stephanie Woodard.

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