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18 Reynolds St.
East Norwalk, CT
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Dedicated to building bright futures for impoverished children, their families, and their communities.

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Simply Smiles blog

Follow our blog and read insights from Simply Smiles staff, volunteers and other individuals whose lives are affected by our work!

Field Notes from the Reservation: Giving voice to those little moments

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is from Jessi Wilcox, one of our amazing, incredibly hardworking summer interns, a dedicated volunteer, and a recent college graduate from the University of New Hampshire. Jessi has spent a significant part of her summer with us on the Reservation. Her insights reflect her commitment to the children of La Plant and her thoughtful outlook on how she plans to bring her experience home.


People say it’s the little things in life that count, which can sound a little cliche, but the more life experience I gain, the more I realize how much truth this statement holds. I am overwhelmed with how to put into words what this summer has taught me, and how much my time as an intern on the Reservation has meant. I am flooded by memories of “little” moments that have each played a role in making this summer so meaningful. There are so many stories and emotions I could share, yet I still find myself trying to find a way to connect these moments to a broader audience. How can I make each of these little things that mean so much to me, mean something to my friends and family when I get home? How can I relay my experiences so that it will reach them, or inspire them to get involved?

As a recent college graduate, most of my conversations with people have revolved around some sort of question about my next steps in life. Leading up to graduation, my friends were applying for jobs to start in the summer and getting themselves ready for their next step into a career. I knew my next step had to be getting more involved with Simply Smiles. I was excited to finally have a summer where I could be on the Reservation for an extended period of time and truly immerse myself in the culture, community, and absorb the experience.

Jessi, always a leader of piggy back rides and a friendly face at camp! 

Jessi, always a leader of piggy back rides and a friendly face at camp! 

This excitement stemmed from previous years of being a volunteer with Simply Smiles. I first came out to La Plant for a week during the summer of 2013 with a group from home. After such an amazing time, I knew I had to come back, so the following summer, I did! This time, I participated in the Simply Smiles Win A Trip contest. I worked hard to fundraise so that I could not only contribute to the organization that I felt so strongly connected to but also so I could revisit with old friends and lend a helping hand once more. I was fortunate enough to be one of the winners of the contest and had the opportunity to join the Fairfield University volunteer group for a week in August 2014. Returning to the Rez with a large group of strangers was an awesome experience. It was exciting to see the enthusiasm brought by a big group of college students; there were new ideas and lots of energy to carry us through the week.

My involvement this summer as an intern has taught me a great deal. It can sometimes feel overwhelming getting new volunteers every week, but what I have taken from this is to appreciate the new perspectives that they bring, as well as the new energy and interest they possess. It has been amazing to watch the dynamic and relationships built among volunteer groups, staff, interns, community members, and kids. The conversations at town-wide meals, the games and tickles at camp, and the teamwork that goes on at the work sites proves to be a learning experience for everyone involved.

I have also learned a lot about myself and reflected about who I want to be, and where I want to go from here. Something that got me thinking about this was a brief and silly moment with a 4-year-old boy at camp. When he turned to me with a mouthful of spaghetti and a giant grin, blurting out, “Hey! What’s the big idea?!” I couldn't help but smirk at what had just come out of his mouth. Of course, I replied with, “To tickle you!” which was followed with laughter and big smiles.

But, when you actually do think about it, what is the big idea?

This so called “big idea” revolves around kindness, genuine interactions, real, honest conversations, open-mindedness to new perspectives, and sharing stories and moments with all kinds of people. These are the things that make a difference, no matter where we go in life. It is in these moments that I've formed new friendships and shared memorable experiences. Each town-wide meal, day at camp, trip to the Missouri River, mornings at the worksites, the powwow, and wopila have given me new stories to tell when I return home.

Through these stories, I hope to teach others about Lakota culture and to get involved. These stories have the ability to give a voice to the people of La Plant and strike an emotional chord and, hopefully, action in the lives of family and friends back home.

As a return to the East Coast, I am reminded that it is the little things that will have a big impact. I have learned that getting a smile out of a child, or a hug out of an elder may not seem like a big deal, but it is these things that move us forward down a positive path. 

Thank you, Simply Smiles, for capturing the essence of this and continuing to impress me with your love and sincerity. 


Fields Notes from Oaxaca: When the place dictates the pace, process

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is from our friend Emma Russell, an educator and an invaluable member of the Simply Smiles community. She has spent many summers on our project on the Cheyenne River Reservation and began her volunteer experience with us at our Mexico initiatives in their early years. Below, she gives an update on our Children's Home in Oaxaca, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles, where she is currently helping to get the children ready for the upcoming school year!


Something that has breached my thoughts quite a bit since being here in Oaxaca is the idea of individual past experiences and how much they inform the way we experience new things. You, the reader, have a multitude of your own experiences that have shaped your current perceptions, and whether you are cognizant of it or not, what you take away from my thoughts here—assumptions you may or may not make—will be formed inevitably by those that have formed you. The way I chose to construct and share my experiences so far in Oaxaca are informed greatly by where and what I have come from. The cycle continues. These reasons are why I am always so overwhelmed by the task of writing posts for Simply Smiles. Painting a picture that includes so many different narratives and reaches so many varied minds is a heavy task. Yet, here I am, writing my second ever reflection on the subject, trying, again, to respectfully and thoughtfully share a story that includes the complicated stories of others not mine to share but inexorably intertwined with my experience.

Emma and some of the first residents of our children's home, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles! (July 2016)

Emma and some of the first residents of our children's home, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles! (July 2016)

I have spent the past several weeks teaching and working with some of the first young children of Casa Hogar Simply Smiles. It’s been awesome to watch these kids tackle new concepts and ideas and just plain get excited about learning. Where their background limits them, it also aids them with a tenacity and curiosity that transcends unfamiliar ideas and concepts and pushes them consistently into a new realm of thinking. When I previously said “limits”, what I really meant was that my choices as an educator needed to be altered. I believe that you need to meet children where they are and foster in them the tools they need to succeed in the future. That is your job as a teacher: recognize where they are and help them grow from there. This is my job currently in Oaxaca, but it took some initial mistakes to remind me of this.

For example, Gaby and I went on a serious book hunt recently to find two copies of the same book for Susana (9) and Emiliano (7) to use for some guided reading structured lessons. We chose one of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” stories (although in Spanish they are just “Diario de Greg”). We chose this first because it was the only somewhat developmentally appropriate book choice for a seven- and nine-year-old to read together that the store had two copies of, and two, I thought the fact that it was from a child’s point of view and had some simple sketches to accompany the words might make it a more relatable and accessible text.

I failed to think about how the concepts in the book—the family staying in multiple hotels, visiting a fair, deciding which restaurants to eat in, having too many belongings packed for the trip to fit into one car, and arguing over what to do about the father’s speedboat—would make connecting with this text challenging for them. I was expecting them to understand character motivation for a family conflict when the center of that conflict was a new speedboat and how it would take away from “family time”—so many concepts of which were foreign to them. I expected them, also, to sympathize with Greg, a character their age, when he has to share one hotel room with his whole family for a night. Their current reality is residing in a room with seven other children and it's awesome. 

Reading time! (July 2016)

Reading time! (July 2016)

My expectations were unrealistic. I failed to meet these kids where they were at and my lessons did not go as planned.

Although not impossible to teach, this book has served as a reminder for me on how important it is to remain conscious of what context and foundation students possess and what perceptions may be influencing my choices as an educator. One other thing I have recognized is just how communal we are in the fundamental nature of being a human child. Telling a seven-year-old who grew up in a satellite mountain village of Oaxaca that you are proud of them and the work they have done elicits the same genuine smile and motivates just as well as it does in on the Reservation, in Connecticut, Philadelphia (where I went to school and started teaching), or anywhere else. 

Similarly, songs, games, creativity and anything that captures the innate curiosity of children will always encourage organic learning—whether the learning is in a homemade bodega classroom in Oaxaca, a community center on the Cheyenne River Reservation, or a fully stocked, state-of-the-art, public school classroom in my hometown of Essex, CT.

This translates into what motivates us as adults as well—dignity, hope, love, and support from those around us.

I think this educational realization can serve as a metaphor for Simply Smiles and the experiences that accompany it. We are all trying our best—staff, volunteers, children of Casa Hogar, community members and friends on the Cheyenne River Reservation—to meet the other where he/she exists in this present moment and move forward together. We do this all while working hard to not be informed or limited by the past but rather focus on the now that is spent in partnership and the gaping potential of what we may accomplish together. It is incredible… and I continue to be amazed by the new, positive perceptions we have already formed by working together towards a brighter collaborative future. Of course, I have experienced this mostly on the Rez, and, specifically in La Plant, but after two short months, I am beginning to recognize it here as well. 

The children enjoy a good book and a good giggle at our children's home, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles! (August 2016)

The children enjoy a good book and a good giggle at our children's home, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles! (August 2016)

Seven years ago, I stood on the dirt road right outside where I currently reside in Oaxaca and stared into an empty lot of overgrown grass as Bryan explained the vision for our very own Simply Smiles children’s home. Today, I sit in the office of Casa Hogar Simply Smiles (on that same property) and I can hear those first resident children laughing and playing below my window as I write. I write about not so much the countless hours spent of academic skills we are working to develop, but rather, about how a nine-, seven-, and four-year-old have encouraged me yet again to see the world in a different way. 

And I thought I was the teacher.

Field Notes from the Reservation: First Church of Stamford, take two!

Alex Gross

We often say one of the most challenging elements of volunteering at our project sites is how to best articulate all of the things that happen over the course of day and to share these occurrences with friends and loved ones back home. While we do follow a schedule and have plans for the week, there are a number of events - small or large - that can make the volunteer experience even more memorable. In this Field Note, our friends from the First Congregational Church of Stamford, Connecticut try their hand at describing parts or reflections from their days, with snippets from numerous volunteer perspectives! We're happy to have the Stamford crew back on the Reservation this week - their second volunteer experience with us!


No rest for the weary! It's right to work on Sunday for our Stamford friends, including pellet shed construction ! (La Plant, August 2016)

No rest for the weary! It's right to work on Sunday for our Stamford friends, including pellet shed construction ! (La Plant, August 2016)

"Yesterday was the 'lazy Sunday' here in La Plant, although the definition of lazy out here must be different from what we are used to because, by the end of the day, I think we were all feeling exhausted and ready for a good night's rest. We were privileged to be given an amazing tour by Sam, who so eloquently spoke about the reality of life in this town and on the Reservation. It is something hard to put into words and yet she did it so well, I know that I wished that I could have recorded her and played it back so that when asked what it is like here I could have her words inspire everyone like they did me. She said that it is 'tangible hopelessness' and yet come time for the town wide dinner at the end of the day I felt as though it had shifted in just a year's time to become a tangible hope. More people attended the community dinner than I had seen attend any single event last year. Children grabbed our hands and pulled us to the playground. I can remember last year beginning the process of building the playground. Digging the holes that would be foundation for the swingset and building the rock wall. It’s amazing how it has become the center for the children's play and an icebreaker for people of all ages. Here's to more play to come." ­ - Emma Jelliffe

Pillow-making fun at camp! (La Plant, August 2016)

Pillow-making fun at camp! (La Plant, August 2016)

"Positivity encourages progress. Something as small as watching my cousin push a child on a swing are drastic changes for the Lakota people. Last year, it would have taken days for them to be comfortable to be around us in such a way. To see them so open to the new people this year is truly a sight to behold. Anyone from the trip last year can attest to this. But my favorite part of the day was watching my grandmother. Yes, the leader of the group and one of the older members, years do not apply to her. I watched her conversate with the good Lakota people of La Plant whether in their cars or on a bench she asked about their lives and how things have changed. She followed the children to the playground, or 'park' as they love to call it, and pushed them on swings. She even climbed to the top of the climbing wall and watched the youth of La Plant, the sun go down. And there sitting beside her I noticed an amazing thing. A boy we had previously met before who bluntly called people names and swore and cursed at my grandmother was now beside her laughing and holding her hand. What a great change this place has hope! What great change, this place has promise. What great change this place has a future." ­ - Shanika Bello

Learning about horses - and taking a spin! - at camp on Monday! (La Plant, August 2016)

Learning about horses - and taking a spin! - at camp on Monday! (La Plant, August 2016)

"Coffee tastes good this morning with the wind blowing across the extraordinary land. Sleep came easily last night after a busy day painting the ceilings in the two new houses being built this summer. The town wide dinner was so well attended ­ lots of children enjoying the playground constructed last summer. How much fun to watch the teenage boys and girls playing a competitive game of basketball ­ the girls are amazing. I am honored to be here again this year. ­  

"Monday was a productive day of flooring, painting, molding, stucco, taping. Camp was fantastic: 37 pillows made, drawing, friendship bracelets, basketball, playground, music camp. A friend brought his horses for the kids to ride. Evening brought heat lightning to light up the massive sky, followed by thunder and rain and cooler night temps. A great day!" - ­ Leslie Loop

Intense puzzle piecing and getting crafty at camp! 

Intense puzzle piecing and getting crafty at camp! 

"Good afternoon in camp. Quality time with master puzzle maker and budding artist!"­ - Bob Loop

"As we stood outside doing the dishes from last night's dinner we were privileged to witness the most spectacular sunsets, absolutely jaw dropping. Life has a way of restoring your soul, of giving you what you need if you simply stay open to it! Another highlight of the day was riding a horse!!" -­ John Jelliffe

Field Notes from the Reservation: Matching history lessons to a place, needing to do more

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by Dennis Cullinane, a teacher at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and leader of the student group that is volunteering with us this week on the Reservation. 


When I embarked upon my journey west to La Plant, South Dakota with Simply Smiles, I was under the impression that I understood what current Native culture was like, and the tragic history that came to shape it. To be sure, some of my understandings were accurate, and in fact, as I traveled here and during my first days in La Plant, I read The Last Stand, a book about Native and U.S. government relations leading up to the Battle of the Little Big Horn. I had also taught and interacted with Native students back at Deerfield Academy, had studied the public health issues of Native Americans, and growing up as a Democrat in Massachusetts, I was sure I was well armed to understand the people I would be helping.

As the days in La Plant have unfolded though, I’ve begun to understand better how incredibly complicated, and dare say, sinister, are the history and current issues facing the inhabitants of the Cheyenne River Reservation. And perhaps most importantly, I now have a tremendously ingrained sense of how scheming, poverty, neglect, and ignorance can trap a people, year after year, generation after generation, in a cycle of despair and surrender.

Dennis, right, works with Jeremy from La Plant to build the foundation of a wood pellet shed at the new homes.

Dennis, right, works with Jeremy from La Plant to build the foundation of a wood pellet shed at the new homes.

Where I came from, unemployment is lower than virtually any country in the Western world, public and health facilities are equally world-class, and a greater educational experience than the generation before is not just a hope, but a certainty. Little kids grow up wanting to be doctors, lawyers, astronauts, marine biologists, or president of the United States. Even African Americans, a cohort that has suffered tremendously at the hands of American society, now can tell their children that they, too, can be president. Unfortunately, the reality I left either nominally exists, or does not exist at all on the Reservation. 

To the great credit of the people who have lived here for generations, and despite all that they as a living historical lineage have endured, they are warm, friendly, thoughtful, profoundly philosophical, and deeply proud of their heritage.

Indeed, I have been incredibly impressed with the indefatigability of their spirits in their daily lives, but I cannot help but feel a need to do more.

Working side-by-side: Volunteer Katie works with Shane of La Plant to frame in a bathroom ceiling on a new home.

Working side-by-side: Volunteer Katie works with Shane of La Plant to frame in a bathroom ceiling on a new home.

Not more in the simple sense of giving money, or goods, or et cetera, but to help kick start the next generation so that they can exit the vicious cycle in which they unknowingly find themselves. Indeed, lending them the lens to see another, possible, happier and more constructive future can be as simple as letting them know somebody else cares about them, wants them to succeed, and in some instances, expects more of them. This knowledge is exactly what will send them - especially the children - careening out of cycle in a wonderfully chaotic tour of life that most of us, their neighbors, take for granted every day of our lives.

A fire was smoldering in me when I committed to the week here at Simply Smiles, smack dab in the middle of South Dakota. That smoldering ember is now burning brightly. I now see the face of my own happy, eager, well-educated, well-traveled and wonderful 14-year-old son in the eyes of every kid I see here, and I shudder at the thought of him giving up on his future and being sucked into a cycle of generational despair.

The kids here need a lens, or a higher hill to stand upon, or whatever metaphor you like, so that they can see further and do more with their lives. I now understand life here, but sadly, only a little bit better.


Field Notes from the Reservation: Returning volunteers reflect on second visit

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by our friends from Palmer Trinity School of Miami, Florida. This group of high school students are joined for teachers and faculty from the school, as well as individuals from the Massachusetts-based group, Sisters for Peace. Below, students from the Palmer Trinity School make some mid-week reflections about their time here on the Reservation:


All smiles at the new home sites, as we near completion of the exterior facades!

All smiles at the new home sites, as we near completion of the exterior facades!

This is Palmer Trinity’s second time in La Plant, and we are extremely excited to be back!

We have been working on Ford and Kee’s houses and have made significant progress throughout the week. All of us have been working hard and putting in our best efforts to complete these homes for the people of the Lakota community. 

In addition to all the wonderful work we have done, the relationships we have built with the other volunteers, interns, staff, and especially the community have given us more than we could ever imagine. The sense of family, pride, and love that Simply Smiles has created within the walls of the Sam D. Horse Community Center has not only brought this community together but has also produced a unique bond among us as students.  

Superhero Day at camp, complete with mighty t-shirts and capes!

Superhero Day at camp, complete with mighty t-shirts and capes!

Among the PTS group, there are four students who are returning for their second volunteer experience. They had such vivid and wonderful memories of their conversations with Barbara, playing basketball with Kayson, and reading with Madison on the playground spiderweb. Upon return Sofia, Delaney, Miguel, and Lauren were apprehensive about how they would be received by the children and elders of La Plant. On the first day of camp, Jayce, Lulu, and Stayce all remembered the four returnees by name. In that moment, Lauren, Sofia and Delaney were brought to tears as they realized that the impact the kids had on them was just as big as the influence the four volunteers had on the kids. 

When we arrived on the Reservation we heard stories of how the Lakota children originally had no aspirations in life. This week, Hope - and many other students from our group - spoke with the children and were happy to hear them make references to graduating high school, attending college, and even aspiring for careers after they finish their schooling.

Sergio, center, leads a garden tour and taste test of the garden!

Sergio, center, leads a garden tour and taste test of the garden!

During camp, kids have expressed desires to become anything from professional basketball players to superheroes. Sergio, for example, has demonstrated an interest in pursuing a career in agriculture. These very ambitions are testaments to the positive impact Simply Smiles has had and continues to make on this community. 

Throughout our trip we have befriended the children, heard the horrific stories of what the elders went through during the“Boarding School Era, and felt accomplished after finishing the framing, soffits, and mixing of cement to build houses for the deserving families.

Every experience is meant to change you, and this experience is most definitely changing us.