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Thank you for your interest in Simply Smiles! We invite you to explore our projects in Oaxaca, Mexico and on the Cheyenne River Reservation, as well as volunteer opportunities in these locations.

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East Norwalk, CT

Dedicated to building bright futures for impoverished children, their families, and their communities.


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 Oaxaca: What we've come to expect from Simply Smiles

Alexandra Gross

Our recent Field Note from Oaxaca is penned by volunteers extraordinaire Eleanor McCormick and Stefan Schütz. Eleanor, the associate pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence, KS, and her husband, Stefan, have led multiple youth and adult groups from their congregation at our project site on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota. They recently had the opportunity to visit the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico, working alongside children's home director, Gaby Chavez Hernandez, and the Mexico staff and, of course, having fun with the kids! Below are some of their insights.

By Eleanor McCormick and Stefan Schütz

 Eleanor & Stefan with the children! (Photos by Stefan Schütz)

Eleanor & Stefan with the children! (Photos by Stefan Schütz)

Just a short drive south from the Oaxaca Airport in Mexico is the Simply Smiles Home for Children. We entered the large metal gate to the joyful greetings of children—all eager for hugs and introductions. The colorful walls, chalk drawings on the paving stones, marbles in the sand, and bubbles in the air told us a full week was ahead!

Wednesday night Ana Lucia (6), with the patience of Doña Lulu and Doña Sylvia, staff at the children's home, helped in the kitchen cutting tomatoes—just as Sergio does on the Reservation. Similar to Simply Smiles' programs on the Reservation, where community is created under a pavilion at long picnic benches, we found a feeling of community in the courtyard at Simply Smiles Mexico: food is served family style, and relationships are nourished over delicious meals and laughter.

Each morning the children left for school. Meanwhile, the dedicated and loving staff of Simply Smiles worked hard preparing homemade lunch, mopping dormitories, sweeping outdoor play spaces, attending to dishes, and beginning laundry for 20 busy children all under the age of 18! Alma and Charlie created, sewed, and glued magnificent costumes for the upcoming Revolutionary Day parade, and their full crafting table was met with the biggest smiles as the children returned home in the afternoon. 

Gaby Chavez Hernandez has hired and inspires a team that looks out for the best interests of the children. This includes Rosa (6), who lacks the ability to speak, walk, or eat solid food. It also includes Jennifer (15) and Rosibel (17), who sit with Gaby and Paola at the kitchen most evenings to work on their high school level exams in human anatomy or English. 

On Saturday night, we celebrated Maricela (5) and Jenny's (9) birthdays! We all enjoyed a dance party with DJ Felipe (5), chocolate cake, fun hats, and lots of very loud singing!

These are the small things that make the Simply Smiles Home for Children different. A trip into the city for a cake: worth it. An extra hour in the evening on homework: worth it. The opportunity to make a child feel affirmed, known, and loved—this is what Simply Smiles is all about. Simply Smiles is making a long-term commitment to each of these children, and the level of dedication is palpable. 

 Eleanor & Stefan join the birthday festivities at our home for children!

Eleanor & Stefan join the birthday festivities at our home for children!

 Alma, center, helps the children with their homework at the Simply Smiles Home for Children. (Photo by Stefan Schütz)

Alma, center, helps the children with their homework at the Simply Smiles Home for Children. (Photo by Stefan Schütz)

As we asked more questions and participated more fully in the day-to-day schedule at Casa Hogar, we learned just how many opportunities are assured to these children. Through connections with local doctors and a location close to a children's hospital, access to affordable and excellent health care is provided to each and every child. A safe, clean, dynamic, and loving space has been built and is being maintained and expanded, so that these children can excel in school and have a brighter future. Educational success is supported by Doña Mari's fresh breakfast. Staff member Alma speaks with each child's teacher every day, attends school meetings, and tutors during afternoon homework hours.

For many years, we have been watching the Simply Smiles Home for Children transform lives from afar. We are so grateful for this opportunity to finally meet the children and see the sanctuary that has been built by volunteers before us in Oaxaca. Our experience only confirmed what we already knew to be true: Simply Smiles provides bright futures for children—one smile at a time!

 (Photo by Geer Teng)

(Photo by Geer Teng)

Because of the quality of the volunteer experience that Simply Smiles consistently provides, we have returned to the Reservation year after year, leading youth and adult service trips. We plan to return to Simply Smiles Mexico for the very same reason. We were well prepared by the Simply Smiles staff, who were with us every step of the way. We lived and worked alongside staff like Gaby - who are patient, well informed, and working to create lasting change. No busy work ever... and this is not volunteer tourism.

This is, as we have come to expect from Simply Smiles, a profound, impactful and safe experience. 

We will miss the smiles that filled our past week. We look forward to seeing them again soon. Thank you to the staff of Simply Smiles for this remarkable volunteer experience. We cannot imagine a better way of spending our vacation.

 Smiling faces at the Simply Smiles Home for Children! (Photo by Geer Teng)

Smiling faces at the Simply Smiles Home for Children! (Photo by Geer Teng)

Field Notes from the Reservation: Raising the roof with our volunteers from Lawrence, Kansas

Zach Gross

Below is an update from our youth volunteers from the Plymouth UCC in Lawrence, Kansas, who have returned to volunteer with us on the Cheyenne River Reservation for their third consecutive year!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

High school students from the Plymouth Youth Group from Lawrence, Kansas joined the staff and interns at Simply Smiles in welcoming about 30 children from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation at the start of a week-long summer camp in La Plant, South Dakota.

"[The children at camp] were much more willing to be involved and much more open,” said Calvin DeWitt, who is in his third year of volunteering in La Plant. In previous years, the volunteers needed to work much harder to form relationships with the kids, showing the strides made by Simply Smiles on the Reservation.

On Tuesday, four days into our adventure in La Plant, South Dakota, we raised the roof -- literally.

With Simply Smiles’ founder, Bryan, spearheading the effort, Plymouth volunteers raised three roof trusses on the new volunteer bunkhouse. One group of volunteers moved a roof truss to the top edge of the framed walls and handed the truss to nine members on scaffolding inside the new structure. It was an amazing team effort, just as much of this week has been.

Cooler weather moved in on Tuesday, and while we felt a few sprinkles, the rain held off and lower temperatures made everything easier. In the mix was: a two hour basketball game featuring volunteer Alex Stark vs. the teenage women of La Plant, Liam McKinney and his first power tool, Stefan Schuetz and his team installing OSB sheathing, and Rylee Roberts documenting our trials and successes on film. As Jacob Schepp noted during Tuesday night reflection - Tuesday was a five star day!

 Volunteers Siona and Ruby work on painting the inside of a newly-renovated home of a community member.

Volunteers Siona and Ruby work on painting the inside of a newly-renovated home of a community member.

 Epic bubble making at summer camp!

Epic bubble making at summer camp!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

We couldn’t feel our toes! But we stayed in the cold water of the Missouri River nonetheless. Why? Because 30+ Lakota youth wanted to splash, swim, jump from the dock, take underwater photography with a Go-Pro, and use their imaginations and new-found friendships to fill an amazing afternoon of camp! On the way home, a six year old fell asleep on volunteer Lourdes’ shoulder and the three Jaiden’s (just one from Plymouth) bonded as they shared a seat on the big red bus.

The river day was a great reward after a full morning of hard work. One team, led by chaperone Mindy Downs, delivered new flooring to a resident’s home, and completed all of their painting projects except the kitchen! A few of our volunteers, including Siona, Rollin, Jaiden, Olivia and Grace, came back to the Community Center with a bit more paint on their bodies and hair than on the walls. Another team hoisted 16 roof trusses into place for the largest roof in Simply Smiles La Plant history, on a new volunteer bunk house! Thanks to Margaret’s awesome communication skills, Peter’s height, and the muscle of Maleena, Schepp, Gabe and many others, it was an amazing illustration of teamwork!


Thursday we enjoyed a special snack of dirt! Several campers participated in making chocolate pudding that we topped with Oreos and gummy worms supporting this week’s camp theme of “Bug, Insect & Spiders Oh My!” Did we mention we got to have Dairy Queen Blizzards on Wednesday evening? When asked if they would return for a second or third year volunteers Olive and Rose chimed in with an enthusiastic, “Yes! And we already have a list of friends to invite with us!”

Lourdes and kids.jpg

voices of lakota youth: "rides on the enemy without fear"

Zach Gross

In honor of the Native Nations March in Washington, D.C. today, we wanted to share with you the perspective of Kayson, a Lakota teenager living on the Cheyenne River Reservation whom we have been fortunate to know since we began our partnership on the Reservation. 

Kayson spent the entire fall and winter of 2016 on the Standing Rock Reservation, serving as a water protector and resisting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In those months, he experienced the joy of different indigenous nations from across the globe coming together juxtaposed with the brutality of people driven by greed and destruction.

During a recent trip to the Reservation in late February, we asked Kayson to share his thoughts on what living at camp was like, how it changed him, and what's next for him as a Lakota youth.

In a ceremony later this year, Kayson will be honored and given a Lakota name, which, fittingly, translates to "Rides on the Enemy Without Fear."

the feeling of camp -

it was a feeling of welcoming, and the people were so nice to each other.

i was there when the camp was still young.

i was a boy then, and now i'm a man.

i learned the ways of my religion and that's Lakota.

i rode horses there. i rode with the riders i call brothers now.

we are all in this fight together. we have to fight for what's right. 

i've met so many different tribes. it was the best feeling i had in a long time -

like the air was filled with joy

and the people would enjoy the ways of many different tribes.

there were round dances and singing contests and volleyball and basketball.

i was happy for my people because the joy they had was brought too on that day of oct. 27th**:

it was a hard day that i was riding with my brothers to fight the black snake.

i watched the cops hurting my people.

I am a protector of Mother Earth. It’s my calling to do so.

they showed no fear against my people, and i was a little scared.

they used concussion grenades against us, had weapons.

we had no weapons, we were unarmed.

that did not matter to them.

i was there.

i watched the people getting hurt by the police.

then my brother told us to go with him, so we did the buffalo run and we herded those buffalo.

we heard the screams of joy from our people, we gave them hope and they did not give up.

they fought hard that day.

i'm proud to be Lakota.

i'm proud of my people that fought with us that day. 

my next fight is with the kxl pipeline.

that'll be in bridger, SD.

i've been trained for this, so now I'm ready for that fight

and i wanna bring as many people to fight with us.

we stood with standing rock. now it's time to stand with cheyenne river.

that's what we gotta do.

i am a protector of mother earth. it's my calling to do so.

i'll have my brothers next to me fighting this pipeline.

i thank you guys for the support and hopefully we will see you there.

We are all in this fight together. We have to fight for what’s right.

**You can read more about the events of October 27, 2016 and the subsequent detainment of water protectors here and here.

STAY INFORMED. Learn more about the Native Nations Rise March and its aims here and here.  •  You can follow the march and subsequent actions by following the hashtags #NativeNationsRise, #NativeNationsMarch, #IndigenousRising, #NoDAPL and #WaterIsLife on social media. •  Read the latest news about the Dakota Access Pipeline here

TAKE ACTION. Learn how your members of Congress have voted on issues that affect Native Americans -- and encourage them to support indigenous rights with upcoming legislation -- here.

VOLUNTEER WITH SIMPLY SMILES. You can meet the amazing Lakota youth that we support on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. Click on the button below to learn more and get started!


Header photo: © 2016, Rob Wilson Photography

Growing moments: 2016 garden season on the Reservation

Alex Gross

by Alexandra Gross, Reservation garden manager

the harvest!

Over the course of this summer, I chipped away at Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer is a scientist, enthobotanist, professor and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She’s a gifted writer and philosopher who gives profound insight into the interconnectedness of all living creatures. One passage from her work continues to resonate with me: “A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence. And its power goes beyond the garden gate - once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself.”

If you have a job that is dependent on Mother Nature, you learn to be humble. Good farmers and food growers acknowledge that they are merely facilitators and caretakers for bigger, natural forces. Sure, we can plant the seeds and hope to reap a harvest and a small profit, but much of it is out of our control. 

What is in our control: How we choose to show respect, reverence and patience for the human and biotic community that surround and are a part of the garden.

The easiest part of my job, especially coming from a commercial growing background, is showing the quantitative value of the garden. I’m proud to say that, during the 2016 season, we produced more than 700 pounds of food. That’s a lot of vegetables! This growth in production should be celebrated, especially watching the La Plant Grow Its Own Food project transform from a small, tomato-growing contest to a quarter-acre micro farm because of the many, generous hands of the Simply Smiles community.

But, how do I capture the most rewarding part, or the intangible benefits? I’ve seen a shift in some of the adults, whom I first met when I was a volunteer in 2013 when they were shy and slightly standoffish to now, when they approach the garden with great interest and pride. I’ve had the opportunity to mentor and work alongside many inquisitive, spirited kids who get truly psyched about working in the garden, selling the produce at their weekly farmstands, or leading garden tours, gaining authority and confidence with each passing week. 

When I arrived in La Plant to expand the garden project in April 2014, the original plan was simple: Build a garden in a central location, and people will come. Well, turns out, it was and remains not that simple.

This is not to say that “going with the flow” became the adopted mantra - far from it! By just being in the garden space regularly, people - adults and youth alike - have shown interest in and embrace the garden in their own unique and meaningful ways. Pace and patience are two concepts that I’ve come to appreciate because people are showing up, they are eating the food, and they are participating.

La Plant Grows Its Own Food    farmstand series 2016!

Seeds are taking root in La Plant:


People in town attended the nine farmstands that we held throughout the course of summer and early fall. Individuals asked how to use vegetables, and neighbors shared recipes.

  • A young girl saved up some money to buy a cookbook at the farmstand. She wanted to test out some new recipes for her family.
  • In late summer, after a townwide meal, I watched a young father walk around the garden with his toddler son on his shoulders, pointing out different vegetables and flowers.
  • A man quietly stopped by the Community Center to learn more about a seed packet that he was given. He planned to plant the watermelon in his garden, but wanted to know if the fruit would grow in time for a family reunion in late summer.
  • A grandmother harvested young carrots with her granddaughter, both with wide smiles on their faces.
  • A young couple invited Zach and me to see their new garden in their backyard. We casually swapped tips and laughs, as you would with close friends.
  • During garden class, a girl said, rather casually, that the garden makes her feel safe…and less bored. 
  • One of the youth garden assistants from the Reservation planted a garden around the perimeter of his house, providing weekly updates on the the height of his growing sunflower and asking when the seeds would be ready to harvest, eat, and save for the following season.

The garden is flourishing because presence - physically being there - is the root of the Simply Smiles philosophy. You can’t run a garden from a desk in Connecticut, and I’ve been fortunate that I have spent a significant part of my three years with the organization living and working on the Reservation.

Every time I latch the garden gate, I leave the space feeling immensely hopeful. The garden has morphed into something more than the physical space of raised beds, a greenhouse, and a pumpkin patch. I’ve witnessed, quite visibly that kids and adults alike are seeing and planning for a future.

It's with the support and generosity of members of the Simply Smiles community that we have a garden and greenhouse, that these food growing initiatives can provide an electricity, warmth, and make growing local food on the Reservation a point of pride, celebration, and serve as a visible and exciting symbol of hope and change. Thank you!


The greenhouse!

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. 

Field Notes from the Reservation: Consistency in the face of poverty and pain

Alex Gross

The most recent Field Note is the second reflection by our friends from Plymouth Congregational Church of Lawrence, Kansas. As a returning volunteer group, they discuss the importance of consistency and presence in combatting larger issues on the Reservation in their latest post. Take a read:

No single week’s worth of work can provide a lasting antidote to the forces of poverty, racism and broken relationships that have plagued the Cheyenne River Reservation for centuries. But, there is hope; there is measurable and visible change taking place, and Simply Smiles is here to stay. 

Now, Plymouth Youth Group of Lawrence, Kansas is a part of this consistent presence in the Cheyenne River community of La Plant. 

 Plymouth Leader Eleanor (second from left) speaks with the housing recipients - Kee, Ford, and Elvis - at the housing site of Ford (second from right). 

Plymouth Leader Eleanor (second from left) speaks with the housing recipients - Kee, Ford, and Elvis - at the housing site of Ford (second from right). 

“One group, working one week, can’t have all the impact it takes to effect lasting change,” says Cameron Buzhardt, a youth participant on this year’s trip. “But multiple groups coming year after year to take part in this can effect change that extends beyond just the Community Center [in town].”

Cameron, along with her fellow Plymouth Youth volunteers Cole Phillips, Abby Jackson and Andrew Anderson, came to South Dakota for similar reasons. 

For Cole: “I wanted to experience what it was like to be here, to be a part of building a house for a family who needs it.”

For Andrew: “I knew work needed to be done here, and I wanted to help out.”

For Abby, who made the trip north from Kansas to the Reservation in the summer of 2015 as well; “I wanted to see the progress that had been made in a year, to see what kind of impact we possibly made from being here last year. 

“After last year I felt I had a duty to continue to help out,” says Abby. “I felt like it was truly a calling.”

The reality of experiencing the systemic dysfunction that has existed since the creation of the Reservation system can be challenging, especially when one sees the effects on individuals with the least control over their present circumstances — the children whom Plymouth Youth have gotten to know through Simply Smiles’ day camp.

 Personal piñata making at camp!

Personal piñata making at camp!

After speaking with a teenage girl at camp, Abby recounted, “I asked her whether or not the community was changing, if the positive interactions and relationships have spread to the rest of the town, and she said it was hard to say. There are still a lot of problems, but here [at the Community Center], here is a safe space for the kids.”

Behavioral issues at camp — particularly incidents of bullying between select children — do not emerge from a vacuum. They are often the result of the pain that runs deep from years of systematic and cultural disintegration. 

This in no way excuses or condones bullying — Simply Smiles has a zero tolerance policy for such behavior — but witnessing the legacy of history is an important thing for Plymouth Youth to experience and grapple with firsthand.

In talking with La Plant residents, Abby learned that change, no matter how incremental, was still huge and, “happening. The stability provided in Simply Smiles can create safety, security and positive interactions for the kids to hopefully mimic. And I do believe it can and will spread over time.”

When asked if she’d think about coming back and volunteering with Simply Smiles again, Abby replied, “Absolutely.” A recent high school graduate, she went on to say, “I want to come back as an intern next summer.”

The work with the children is perhaps the most important project of any volunteer group that comes to La Plant and Simply Smiles. The children are the foundation and the future; reminding the kids on the Reservation of their importance—of the value of their hopes and their dreams, of their right to a place in this world—is vital. And the hundreds of Simply Smiles volunteers who travel to the Reservation each summer can provide the consistent presence necessary to enact change.

  Taking great heights to build strong, safe, secure homes:  Thanks to our amazing volunteers and interns who worked alongside Bryan to put the roof on Ford's new home!

Taking great heights to build strong, safe, secure homes: Thanks to our amazing volunteers and interns who worked alongside Bryan to put the roof on Ford's new home!

Field Notes from the Reservation: Doin’ Work - Physically, Structurally, and Emotionally

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by our friends from Plymouth Congregational Church of Lawrence, Kansas. They are returning for their second volunteer week here on the Reservation with a passionate, enthusiastic and creative group of adults and high school students. Below, they reflect on their first few days of work projects and camp.

 A tight seal of caulk goes on our new home!

A tight seal of caulk goes on our new home!

Plymouth Youth Group’s first full day of scheduled activities in La Plant, South Dakota with Simply Smiles ended with sweat, tired muscles and many more new, meaningful, personal connections to the families and specifically the children of the Cheyenne River Reservation.

“When we were setting up the trusses, at first it was just work,” says Alexis Hickman, “but it dawned on me later that I was literally building a house for a family. Especially, after seeing the trailer they currently lived in, and how badly they needed this house.”

“Pouring over thirty bags of concrete was exhausting, but it was very fulfilling to see the end result,” says Tristan Kramar.

“To put something down solid, in concrete, helped to underscore the permanence of what we were doing,” says Rose Winmore.

Both Tristan and Rose also spoke about the family for which they were constructing the concrete path, specifically the two year old son, D.J., who they got to play with and who tried to help out in the process by adding little handfuls of dirt into the concrete mix.

After the day’s work projects came the more, truly, exhausting, yet much more impactful work in the Simply Smiles Day Camp as a bus load of kids as young as four and as old as thirteen rolled up to the community center. 

“I was blown away by how fast the kids all learned our names, or how they remembered the names of the people who came here last year,” says Jasmine Hawk. “They genuinely seemed excited to see us, to meet us.” 

“The new faces,” says Doug Beene, “seem to provide an escape from their present realities.” 

“For them to remember those who came back,” says Rose, “I guess, in a way, that these people cared about you for more than just one week a year.”

The day camp is a safe space where kids can socialize and play without fear or uncertainty hanging over them. “I got to see two little kindergarteners become instant friends at the bubble station,” Rose says. “They took joy in having the common ground of being the same age, going into kindergarten the next year.” Simply Smiles gave them that place for an introduction. 

 Bubble fun at camp!

Bubble fun at camp!

“Honestly,” Tristan says, “I wish I could be a part of the camp all day, instead of working on the projects. Yes, you see progress on the houses, but you see even more progress in making connections with these kids, having great conversations. It produces an even more important form of progress.”

The construction projects are not short on producing powerfully emotional impacts as well though. 

“To be here, to see a house close to being finished, or to see it finished,” Alexis says, “is amazing. To know you were a part of that is amazing.”

The houses that Simply Smiles volunteers help to create provide an invaluable sense of independence for the families who move into them. Being allowed to be a part of this work doesn’t simply create a self congratulating reward of being some sort of liberating savior. Rather, it’s about extending a hand with gratitude for the experience and seeing that paid back through the interactions with the youngest of the reservation and through them the future and recognition of growing pride within the La Plant community that reminds us all of the brotherhood and sisterhood of a shared humanity.

Field Notes From Mexico: More Than Just "Deworming"

Alex Gross

This latest edition of Field Notes comes from Simply Smiles President & Founder, Bryan Nurnberger. Bryan is currently visiting Simply Smiles program locations in Oaxaca, Mexico where he helped to staff a medical clinic.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, 2,504 people just received treatment for parasitic infection from Simply Smiles. At the same time, we distributed over 12 tons of food staples, began construction on 14 more latrines and announced the opportunity for children to be educated from kindergarten through the college level at our our new “Casa Hogar Simply Smiles Children’s Home”.

Efforts to treat populations for parasitic infection, or “deworming” programs as they are often called, are one of the most impactful and most common actions taken by governments and NGOs in impoverished areas. While deworming efforts are extremely common around the world, they are almost always done in a manner that is not in keeping with the principles upon which Simply Smiles bases our work. For example, in the village where our Director of Oaxacan Operations, Gabriela Chavez Hernandez, grew up, strangers would show up every six months, pass out pills to treat for parasites and leave. This “treatment only” approach is the global norm because it’s easy to execute and the relatively low cost of the medicine makes indefinite treatment possible - but it is clearly not a solution to the problem.

Treatment only perpetuates a system of dependency and is a disrespectful way to support individuals in need.


If the reader feels conflicted or unsure about the definitive nature of this statement consider this scenario:  If your own child continuously suffered with an ailment that left him malnourished, in pain, and at risk of death from blocked intestines would you rather A) provide temporary relief twice a year forever or B) address the root cause of the ailment and cure your child permanently? Treatment only approaches dictate that answer A is what parents want for their children. Simply Smiles, and every parent with a choice, chooses answer B - a permanent and respectful cure. 

 Simply Smiles President & Founder, Bryan Nurnberger with one of the children he encountered on his first trip to the Oaxacan villages. At the time, Rigoberto was suffering from severe parasitic infection. Pictured here at Thursday's clinic (5/26/16) Rigoberto is healthy and attending one of the schools Simply Smiles built in the region.

Simply Smiles President & Founder, Bryan Nurnberger with one of the children he encountered on his first trip to the Oaxacan villages. At the time, Rigoberto was suffering from severe parasitic infection. Pictured here at Thursday's clinic (5/26/16) Rigoberto is healthy and attending one of the schools Simply Smiles built in the region.

Since 2009, Simply Smiles has been working in an extremely remote mountainous area of Oaxaca, Mexico. Here we encountered poverty that was nothing less than stunning. The globalization of the coffee market over the past decades left the population of Zapotec Indians, who have lived here for centuries, in a state of near starvation. During our first visit to the region, the ubiquitous distended and hardened bellies made it immediately clear that there was also an extremely high rate of parasitic infection. While our initial response to this humanitarian emergency was swift, Simply Smiles waited until 2013 to address what we soon learned was specifically parasitic round worm infection. Why? So that we could do it right. Because truly eradicating parasitic infection necessitates complete trust from, and partnership with, the population in need. And that takes time and effort to build. So for four years we built trust by focusing on other needs in the region including distributing over 2.5 million meals and building two schools. It was not until 2013 that we were in a position to begin our eradication efforts. 

(To provide a little more insight into why we waited four years to begin the eradication program, when an infected individual is treated for parasites the medicine kills the worms and they are passed out of the body through what is often quite extreme vomiting and diarrhea. Imagine if someone you didn’t fully trust gave you a pill that had this effect on you. Treating for parasites before we had earned the complete trust of the population would have surely prevented us from being welcome in the region and therefore prevented us from providing the support the population needs.)


I have just arrived at our administrative office in Mexico after helping our team to host a medical clinic that treated 2,504 individuals for round worm infection. Treatment was the focus of this week’s work, but it is just one part of the Simply Smiles holistic plan to eradicate parasitic infection in southern Oaxaca, Mexico:

Partnership & Trust: When there is a line of 2,500+ people, you need a lot of help to manage a clinic of this size. My wife, Kristen, and I were the only Americans staffing the event. Our partnership with the local population means that we can help the people to help themselves. Villagers managed the flow of people through the clinic, translated Zapotec to Spanish at the registration table, helped to prepare and dispense the medicine, and distributed the 12 tons of food staples that are given at every clinic we host. 

Treatment: Twice a year Simply Smiles hosts a medical clinic where the population is treated for parasitic infection with the highest quality name-brand medication. 

Education: Because Simply Smiles built two schools in the region we are able to fold educational programs about how to prevent parasitic infection in the curricula. We’ve distributed thousands of informational pamphlets and hung innumerable signs. A doctor and/or nurse sees every single individual as they come through the clinics to explain what the treatment is for and why it is important. 

Prevention: One contracts round worm from contact with feces, either through lack of hand washing or as a result of open defecation. Each person receives a large bag of soap when they pass through the clinic along with instruction on how to effectively wash your hands. In an area without plumbing, construction of basic pit latrines is an economical and extremely effective way to provide sanitary facilities. To receive a latrine from Simply Smiles, a family signs out shovels and picks and then digs a 3 meter deep hole. Once completed, Simply Smiles sends our local construction workers to build a brick latrine on top of the hole. These latrines have an estimated lifespan of over 40 years. This week, we began construction of 14 additional latrines. 

Scientifically Proven Results: Simply Smiles has partnered with American and Mexican universities and pharmaceutical companies to formulate and execute our unique holistic program to eradicate parasitic infection. At the end of each calendar year, medical professionals including an infectious disease specialist, travel to Oaxaca and test stool samples from 10% of the region’s children. In 2013 the results showed a 48% infection rate. By 2015, that infection rate had dropped to 20%. Our next scientific testing will take place in November of 2016. We are hopeful that we will see an infection rate of less than 10%.

Simply Smiles, of course, will continue our efforts until eradication has been achieved and sustained. The children, families and communities in our care deserve nothing less.


For more information and photos, please visit our More Than Just Deworming webpage.

Field Notes from Mexico: Listening with open ears, serving with open eyes

Alex Gross

The latest Field Notes come from our youth volunteers who are now serving in Mexico at our children's home through a service trip coordinated by Silver Lake Conference Center in CT! The first entry is from Camryn Cicarelli of Sandy Hook, CT. The second reflection is from Danielle Peterson of Stratford, CT.

Sunday was our first full day at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles. We began our day by preparing pancakes and having morning reflections, where we learned about our tasks at hand and how they would not only help Simply Smiles, but also the people of Oaxaca. Before beginning our jobs we took a tour around the neighborhood of San Bartolo Coyotepec. It was incredible to see how the people of Oaxaca live; it also made me appreciate how fortunate I am. Each person we passed would smile and say hello (of course in Spanish) which was representative of the unity in this community. 

 Camryn (left) and fellow volunteer, Katherine, pass cement bricks for an expansion of a patio at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles.

Camryn (left) and fellow volunteer, Katherine, pass cement bricks for an expansion of a patio at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles.

Once we were assigned our tasks, the long day began. I spent the afternoon moving a pile of sand and gravel in preparation for some cement mixing to expand the facility for more children in the future; under the intense Mexican heat, this task felt insurmountable. The feeling of finally completing the task was intensely rewarding. 

In the late afternoon we visited Casa Hogar Benito Juarez, the first children’s home that Simply Smiles supported, which was a life-changing experience. At first I didn’t really know how to communicate with the people there. But as the night progressed, communication became natural. We first made bracelets with some of the children. Although nobody could actually figure out how to assemble them, we shared lots of laughs.

One moment that I really cherished was when a young blind man named Nacho picked up the guitar and played like nothing I had ever heard before. Another notable moment of this night was playing basketball and soccer with a few of the boys at Casa Hogar. I was way too confident going in, and was quickly put in my place when a boy half my age dribbled right past me, leaving me in the dust. 

It was such an amazing feeling knowing that we were able to make all the people there smile, even if we were just there for a few hours. Overall, the day gave me a chance to see how a person thriving in this community actually lives. Also, it allowed me to see how important an organization like Simply Smiles is, and the power we have to impact a life. 

- Camryn

 The Silver Lake volunteers with the children of Casa Hogar Benito Juarez.

The Silver Lake volunteers with the children of Casa Hogar Benito Juarez.

After the hard work day on Sunday, most of us were able to sleep pretty soundly, which was much needed. Monday began with a pre-breakfast yoga session led by Jen, which helped center our minds and mentally prepare us for the full day we had ahead of us. Plus, the stretching really helped our sore muscles from yesterday! Again, we split into various work groups, with some of us mixing cement, some reorganizing the bodega storeroom, and some cleaning decorative bricks for the new children’s rooms, among other jobs. I personally worked a lot on the roof laying bricks for the new patio, which was challenging due to not only the hot sun, but also the fact that Simply Smiles local foreman Javier and his crew accepted nothing less than perfection, which is understandable. The way it was explained to us was to do as well as we could, and to complete the work to the quality that you’d want for your own house— there is no “good enough”.

 Danielle paints the exterior of a new laundry room at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles.

Danielle paints the exterior of a new laundry room at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles.

After lunch and some more work, we were able to travel to the Oaxaca City Dump, which was an eye-opening experience. All the trash and waste from the city end up there, and there is no separation between innocuous ripped clothing and toxic human waste. The pile has been growing exponentially, to the point where is it nearly overflowing into the communities nearby, and the government isn’t providing any kind of aid. The people in the community begin work at the dump at sunrise, picking through the often toxic trash for small pieces of plastic and anything of value that they can sell. For many, this is their only source of income, which adds up to about $1/day.

Regardless, families were extremely welcoming and opened their homes and the community to us, even though they know we live very different lives than them. Something we talked about at night during reflections was how easy it is to fall into pitying them. It’s very tempting to just come in as “saviors” and do what we think is best, when in reality that may not be what is best for them. 

This is one of the biggest initiatives of Simply Smiles, which I think is very important to its success as an organization—to come in with open eyes and ears and listen to the communities and what they need in order to not only survive, but thrive. We were invited into the first home that Simply Smiles built, for a woman named Edith and her family, and it was amazing to see where Simply Smiles began its work in the dump. Although the conditions are still far less than ideal, Edith and her family take immense pride in their home and the restaurant that they were able to open to further support themselves (the sandwiches are delicious). 

Overall, I’m very grateful for my experience at the dump— it’s very easy to turn your head away from things like this, but we made sure to feel this experience fully in order to show respect to the people living there. The work projects were physically demanding, but this was mentally taxing, and I’m glad I was able to experience it. Now, the important thing is to spread awareness of the injustices these hardworking, gracious people face every day, and to do something about it. The initiatives of Simply Smiles are working toward this goal, and I’m very glad I can experience this work first-hand and serve as an amplifier for the voices of the people of Oaxaca.  


Field Notes from Mexico: Reflections from first-time Mexico volunteers

Alex Gross

The latest Field Notes come from volunteers now serving in Mexico at our children's home! The purpose of these insights is to give you a glimpse into the lives of Simply Smiles volunteers, the work that they do and experiences they have while currently at our project locations. Practically speaking, Field Notes also serve as a means of checking in with family and friends of our volunteers! The first entry is by Michele Miller from Monterey, MA, who has served with us on the Reservation and now joins Gaby, Sam and Dave in Mexico for the first time. The second reflection is by two students, Graeme Cohen and Quinn Russo, from the Oxford Academy of Westbrook, CT.

 Michele is all smiles as she paints the space that will soon be the kitchen at our children's home!

Michele is all smiles as she paints the space that will soon be the kitchen at our children's home!

In less than 48 hours, our Simply Smiles team has left behind the daily routines of our lives and the media madness of the moment to participate in the building of a new children's home here in a suburb of Oaxaca. This is not the picturesque Oaxaca you might be familiar with but the hardscrabble hand to mouth existence of the most impoverished people of Mexico. Beautiful people persevering against the odds. 

On Sunday, we visited Casa Hogar Benito Juarez, the inspiration for the current effort, to play and eat with the children. After a morning of pouring cement for the roof of the second story bathroom and painting the kitchen ceiling, we visited the dump where many families live in impossible conditions, sorting through the refuse of the entire city, to scavenge a living. Simply Smiles has become very close to these families, helping build homes and supporting their efforts to thrive. All of us feel this deeply, and are forever changed.

We will be bringing this rich experience home and hope other will join us next time we visit. - Michele Miller

 The group during a trip to Monte Alban.

The group during a trip to Monte Alban.

As a participant of the Simply Smiles team, we have taken a break from a long day of climbing sturdy makeshift stairs while carrying heavy bucket loads of cement for the laundry room. Today, we spent the morning at Monte Alban exploring the Zapotec ruins, one of the beautiful wonders of Oaxaca.

Although we took a rest this morning, our minds are still reflecting the hardships we have seen. From Casa Hogar, to the depressing sight of the dump it has really made us reevaluate the meaning of life. Coming from a first world country, most of us take things for granted. When returning home, the strong emotions that we have experienced in these encounters will stay with us the rest of our lives. We believe it is our duty to pass along these experiences, and share the emotions that have been revealed. - Graeme Cohen and Quinn Russo

Field Notes from Mexico: bias, belonging, and dignity building - abroad and at home

Alex Gross

This latest Field Note comes from Sacred Heart University philosophy professor, Dr. Andrew Pierce. Drew volunteered with a team from SHU in mid-January 2016 and also worked alongside his former student - and our program manager of Mexican operations - Gaby Chavez Hernandez. Drew reflects on the complexities of racial and cultural bias and how to effectively and thoughtfully learn from his volunteer experience.

At the end of an amazing and challenging week-long experience with Simply Smiles in Oaxaca, I am left struggling to process all that I saw and did there, and to figure out a way to incorporate the experience into my daily life here in the United States. It’s a lot to process, but I’d like to focus on just one aspect of the trip, one that moved me deeply, and challenged me to think deeply about poverty and injustice as they manifest not only in Oaxaca, but in my own backyard as well.

The experience I’d like to reflect on was not the most physically challenging (in fact, it was probably one of the most fun experiences of the week), but it was challenging in other ways. On our final day with Simply Smiles, we organized a dinner and party for about a hundred people from the dump community that we visited earlier in the week.

 The Sacred Heart University group gets a tour of the Oaxaca City garbage dump from Simply Smiles staffers Gaby and Zach, while standing on one of the trash mountains that overlook the communities below. (January 2016)

The Sacred Heart University group gets a tour of the Oaxaca City garbage dump from Simply Smiles staffers Gaby and Zach, while standing on one of the trash mountains that overlook the communities below. (January 2016)

This is a community of people who live and work in the Oaxaca City garbage dump, sorting through trash to find recyclables to sell. Picture them for a moment. How do they look in your mind’s eye? Dirty? Dressed in tattered clothing? The image you’ve concocted is probably not too far from the reality that we experienced when we visited that community earlier in the week – a people hardened by the searing sun and the unspeakable conditions in which they live.

And yet, one of the things that struck me about our gathering was that, when these families arrived, their appearance had changed drastically. They showed up clean, fashionably dressed in a style that most of us in the U.S. would find familiar, and displaying the same warm and amicable demeanor present in all of our interactions with them. Had you met these folks on the street, you would never guess that they lived in such abject poverty.

Perhaps this should not have been all that shocking. We all present ourselves differently at a party than we do at work, or in our homes. Perhaps it’s rather superficial to focus on appearance in this way. But I do think that there is a deeper insight that my superficial reaction was teasing out. It has to do, I think, with basic dignity, and with what it means to be recognized and treated as a fellow member of society in equal standing.

Fitting in, feeling “cool” or fashionable, in short, belonging, is important to all of us in one way or another. But why then are we often offended and enraged when the poor and marginalized demand this kind of belonging? When they demand to look like us? Why do we demand that the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed present themselves deferentially - in tattered cloth, with eyes toward the ground, as inferiors, in order for us to deem them worthy of aid? To bring the point a little closer to home, think of the woman on welfare carrying a designer handbag, or the man in line at the grocery store wearing hundred-dollar sneakers, checking out with food stamps.

These images have become standard tropes in our society, marshalled to blame the victims of systematic poverty and oppression for their own conditions, thereby relieving us of any responsibility we might have to help, or even care, as we ourselves pursue our designer bags, expensive shoes, and all the other accoutrements of consumer society. 

 Dr. Pierce, with Gaby, a former philosophy student at SHU and current Simply Smiles program manager of Mexican operations. (January 2016)

Dr. Pierce, with Gaby, a former philosophy student at SHU and current Simply Smiles program manager of Mexican operations. (January 2016)

It may seem like a leap from the Oaxaca City dump to the streets of American cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and etc. But while living in dumps may be uncommon here, the kind of marginalization and injustice minority communities face in the U.S. is, finally, not that different from the kind that I observed in Mexico. The difference is that I have not been raised on a steady diet of stereotypes, rationalization, and disinformation designed to explain and justify the inferior status of the kinds of folks that inhabit the fringes of Oaxacan society, in the way that American society has inundated me with rationalizations of, for example, black urban poverty in the United States. Because of this, it is actually easier to see the people living in the Oaxacan dump as equals, or at least as genuine victims of injustice in need of relief. It is much more difficult to bring this attitude home and apply it to the disadvantaged groups that suffer right before our eyes.

So that is the task that I have set myself upon returning from my trip with Simply Smiles. I will not forget the amazing and inspiring folks that I met there, and I will share their story in hopes that others will be inspired to get involved in their particular struggle.

But perhaps even more importantly, I will make a greater effort to understand the poverty and marginalization in my own society, and search for ways to eradicate it. I will refrain from relying on stereotypes and hasty judgments when interacting with those who may be less advantaged than myself, and I will attempt to recognize and treat them as equals. Instead of searching for reasons to dismiss their claims, I will search for ways to empower and assist them.

In this way, my hope is that my week in Oaxaca does not become a one-off experience that gradually fades into memory, but helps me to become a person committed to justice, equality, and human dignity, in deed as much as in word. 

 At the end of the volunteer week, the SHU team had a fiesta with our friends from the Oaxaca City dump - full of homemade tostadas, musical chairs, and lots of laughing! (January 2016)

At the end of the volunteer week, the SHU team had a fiesta with our friends from the Oaxaca City dump - full of homemade tostadas, musical chairs, and lots of laughing! (January 2016)

What Simply Smiles Means to Me: A reflection from Erin Scionti, volunteer & intern extraordinaire

Alex Gross

Erin Scionti first volunteered on the Reservation in 2013 and returned as an intern in 2015. She joined Simply Smiles staff members Zach and Sam and a team of medical staff during our fall medical clinic and food distribution program in Mexico in November. Below, Erin reflects on her experiences. 

I was beyond ecstatic when I was offered the opportunity to travel with Simply Smiles to Oaxaca, Mexico to help with the food and medicine distribution in the village of Santa Maria Tepexipana (SMT), and to assist Dr. Gil L’italien in testing stool samples to determine the prevalence of various intestinal parasites in that region. I am currently studying public health at Southern Connecticut State University, so this trip encapsulated everything that I had learned so far in the classroom. It made the classroom lessons tangible. I could feel and see the impact of the countless hours spent studying textbook material.

 Erin, right, works alongside Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'italien to test stool samples for the presence of parasitic intestinal worms in Santa Maria Tepexipana and its neighboring communities.

Erin, right, works alongside Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'italien to test stool samples for the presence of parasitic intestinal worms in Santa Maria Tepexipana and its neighboring communities.

We arrived in Oaxaca as a spirited group of eight hard working and dedicated individuals, ready to take on the crucial tasks ahead. Coming into the week, I already had a strong understanding of what was expected of us as representatives of Simply Smiles. I served as an intern with Simply Smiles this past summer on the Cheyenne River Reservation in La Plant, South Dakota. There, I saw the attentiveness, flexibility and love put into each project and person by the staff of Simply Smiles. Though the tasks were drastically different in Oaxaca than those I worked on in La Plant, our mission remained the same: to inspire hope. 

On our first day in Oaxaca, we visited Casa Hogar Benito Juarez, the children’s home that first inspired Simply Smiles. I was a bit nervous at first that I wouldn’t be able to connect well with the kids because of our language differences. But, I learned quickly that language was the smallest of barriers standing in the way of children and fun. The kids warmed up to us immediately as we colored, ran around and enjoyed multiple servings of their favorite ice cream. Seeing the way the kids at Casa Hogar interacted with us reassured me that a language barrier wouldn't stop me from connecting and building relationships with the other children I would meet throughout the week. 

The next day, we departed on an eight hour drive through the breathtakingly beautiful roads of Oaxaca up to Santa Maria Tepexipana, a small village in the remote mountains. When we arrived, I was expecting to see a town in despair but instead I saw quite the opposite. Though poor and many stricken with illness, the people of SMT were some of the warmest people I have ever met. I was so fortunate to meet these kind-hearted individuals, which reaffirmed that happiness is not a measurement of material worth, but rather, a reflection of how one values life.

People in SMT are simply happy to give love and be loved. Families took pride in their home and their culture, they looked out for one another and willingly took less to give others more. Their generosity never ceased to amaze me. One family cleared out an entire half of their home so that we would have a place to sleep and eat during the week. Like the children at Casa Hogar, the kids in SMT instantly became our best friends, hugging us, and holding our hands upon moments of our arrival. I was pleased to see that, once again, despite our language differences, we were welcomed with open arms and smiling faces. 

During the three days of the food distribution and the medical clinic, I worked closely with Dr. Gil Litalien in examining stool samples to track the prevalence of intestinal parasites in the SMT region. We looked specifically for Ascaris, Trichuris, and hookworm. We gathered samples from 113 children who came through the food distribution program with their families.

After careful examination, we found a 21.2% prevalence in the entirety of the region, compared to a 31.4% prevalence in 2014. This 10% decline is a remarkable confirmation that the work Simply Smiles is doing to treat and prevent the spread of infection is noticeably working. By distributing Abendezol at each food distribution and educating the community on the importance of hand washing and wearing shoes out side, the prevalence of intestinal parasites in the SMT region has drastically decreased. 

 Erin, during her time as an intern on the Reservation in 2015. Her positive attitude, willingness to lend a hand wherever needed, and sense of humor are among her many qualities that make her a favorite in the La Plant community!

Erin, during her time as an intern on the Reservation in 2015. Her positive attitude, willingness to lend a hand wherever needed, and sense of humor are among her many qualities that make her a favorite in the La Plant community!

As the week continued to run with ease, thanks to the hard work of our energized and committed team, I grew more and more attached to all the smiling faces of the children and their families in SMT. The people I met in this one small village in Oaxaca, Mexico were so thankful for the help we brought them, but I feel what they gave me in return was an even greater gift. They gave me their friendship. Though our work here is not complete, I returned home knowing that the people we helped this week would continue to grow healthy and remain happy. 

Interning for Simply Smiles has taught me a great deal about myself and the world around me. I’ve learned how to be a valuable part of a team, how to be a strong leader, how to love and care for everyone I meet and most importantly how a simple smile can go a long way.

Tell us what Simply Smiles means to you! Respond with a comment below, post to our Facebook page, Instagram a photo, or tweet @simplysmilesinc using the hashtag #SimplySmilesmeans.

Giving thanks for the Simply Smiles community

Alex Gross

Simply Smiles President & Founder, Bryan Nurnberger, is currently on a two-week visit to our programs in Oaxaca, Mexico. He sent us this dispatch from the place where Simply Smiles began and reflects on the theme of gratitude and its prominent place in our organization's history.

This morning, walking through a barrio of rusted tin houses, rutted dirt roads, and skeleton thin dogs, the smell of raw sewage triggered a part of my consciousness that reminded me of how much time I’ve spent in places like this. 

Open doors reveal glimpses of lives I can never really understand. My relative privilege has made that impossible. The most I can hope for is empathy… But I know an injustice when it is in front of me.

 A view of some of the 27 brightly colored homes that Simply Smiles has built in the barrio within the Oaxaca City garbage dump.

A view of some of the 27 brightly colored homes that Simply Smiles has built in the barrio within the Oaxaca City garbage dump.

I’ve seen newborn babies born into environments completely devoid of hope. I’ve listened to so many stories of hardship, of suffering and of loss that they would be impossible to recount. I’ve felt the bone chilling cold inside a trailer home as a family gathered around an open oven door for warmth. In a garbage dump, where hundreds of people were living, I’ve smelled air so tainted with decomposing trash that it seemed too thick to be inhaled.

Places like Oaxaca, Mexico and the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota fill my senses. And when I first began Simply Smiles, the chemistry of combining overwhelming sights, sounds, smells and touches caused a profound reaction: Fear. 

It was fear that populated my fifth sense as I tasted its tartness in my mouth.

But it wasn’t a fear of physical or emotional harm. Nor was it a fear that I would somehow find myself forced to live and suffer in these places.  

Rather, it was a fear that I wouldn’t have the ability respond to what I was experiencing. It was a fear that I wouldn’t be able to help. I was scared of my position as a conduit between those in need and those who could give. I was petrified that nobody would respond to my stories of the realities on that Indian reservation or in those villages in Mexico.

Since 2003, nearly ten-thousand of you have responded. You’ve given hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours and donated millions of dollars. We’ve laid countless injustices at your feet and your response has been so generous that it sometimes feels unbelievable, like this has all been some kind of inspired dream.

But when I’m in places like this, living with those that Simply Smiles exists to serve, my senses are once again filled as I experience the depth and breadth of the the impact you have had - it’s indeed real, it’s tangible, and it has changed so many lives.

I have to be honest, I’m still scared. When you’re the one who tells the parents; “everything will be alright, we’re going to help you” the fear of not being able to fulfill that promise will always, to some degree, be part of the reality. 

However, that fear is now abated by confidence. A confidence that you provide with each offering of support to Simply Smiles.

We recently received a bright green envelope in the Simply Smiles mailbox. It was ten o’clock at night when I stopped by to pick up the mail, but the green envelope prompted me to open it. Inside there was a check for $1,534.69. The note read: 

Dear friends at Simply Smiles, My husband and I have been very fortunate and have paid off the mortgage on our house! In honor of all you do to provide homes for the people of La Plant, I am sending what I would have paid for my house this month.

I went to bed that night with no fear at all.

With the deepest gratitude,


  Gratitude in action:  Our donors, volunteers, and many members of the Simply Smiles community make it possible for us to answer the call for safe, new homes. You've provide - and continue to provide! - the physical and metaphorical foundations for housing projects on the Reservation. Thank you! (La Plant, South Dakota, August 2015)

Gratitude in action: Our donors, volunteers, and many members of the Simply Smiles community make it possible for us to answer the call for safe, new homes. You've provide - and continue to provide! - the physical and metaphorical foundations for housing projects on the Reservation. Thank you! (La Plant, South Dakota, August 2015)

Field Notes from Mexico: More progress made in our public health efforts

Alex Gross

This Field Note is brought to you by Simply Smiles Senior Program Manager Zach Gross, who recently returned from our Mexico projects, where we held our third medical testing and fifth treatment of parasitic intestinal worms.

On November 9, I returned home from a fantastic week in Oaxaca, Mexico working with our Mexican staff members and a team of volunteers to carry out our latest medical clinic to treat for intestinal parasites.

I am pleased to report that our latest round of testing shows that the infection rate is now at 20% across this region—down from 48% just two years ago!

 Nurse Bernarda Lopez Ordaz helps us to distribute treatment to children in Santa Maria Tepexipana (November 2015)

Nurse Bernarda Lopez Ordaz helps us to distribute treatment to children in Santa Maria Tepexipana (November 2015)

Over the course of three days, 2,173 people from the remote villages of southern Oaxaca came to our food distribution in the town of Santa María Tepexipana and received a month’s supply of food staples. Everyone (except children under age two and nursing or pregnant women) also received a dose of albendazole, which rids the body of intestinal worms and their eggs.

Our method of collecting demographic and qualitative information from participating families allows us to target areas with the highest incidence of intestinal parasites.

 Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'Italien tests stool samples to determine the effectiveness of treatment. Gil has spearheaded our approach to eradicating parasitic intestinal worms in the region. (November 2015)

Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'Italien tests stool samples to determine the effectiveness of treatment. Gil has spearheaded our approach to eradicating parasitic intestinal worms in the region. (November 2015)

The infection rate on our final day of testing was 0%—meaning there were no positive samples among children in those villages.

These latest results are certainly encouraging, and they prove that our multifaceted public health initiative is having a directly positive impact on the health of children and families in Oaxaca.

But we still have work to do. A 20% infection rate is not 10%, which the World Health Organization deems the level at which treatment can occur on a case-by-case basis. And it’s not an overall rate of 0% — which is our ultimate goal, so that soil-transmitted intestinal worms are no longer a reality for families in the region.

Until that time, we will continue to treat the entire population. We will also continue working with the local schools to implement health programs, passing out informational literature on methods of prevention, and building more latrines and hand-washing stations—particularly in villages with the highest infection rates.

While the test results are a reliable, scientific method of measuring the impact of this public health initiative, other, more “subjective” methods are perhaps more telling of our overall impact in this region.

As soon as we first visited this remote part of Oaxaca in 2009, we saw the distended bellies, vacant stares, and malnutrition spots — all signs that intestinal parasites were plaguing the children and families there.

Rather than coming in as outsiders with microscopes and pills, we knew that in order to have long-term success in this region, we needed to form friendships first.

We needed to build trust and prove ourselves worthy of that trust and friendship through our actions. Because of these foundational relationships, we can continue to effectively implement all of our initiatives and measure their effectiveness,

Over the past few weeks, we have collected responses from various supporters and friends at our project sites about what Simply Smiles means to them. We asked our friend, Matea Figeuroa Santiaguez, from Santa María to explain how she sees Simply Smiles. She made note of our “humanitarian support,” referring specifically to the our distributions and school construction, but she really focused on the relationships she’s made with Simply Smiles staff and volunteers over the years—on the people behind the projects.

We appreciate all of the people who make this work possible, and we hope to maintain our friendships with those who visit us in this tiny corner of Mexico. We admire everyone we’ve met from different countries, and we in Tepexipana feel so proud to have made so many new friends over the years. We cannot thank everyone enough for all of their support — especially for the personal energy and sacrifice that each volunteer makes just to be with us in our town.
— Matea Figeuroa Santiaguez, resident, Santa Maria Tepexipana


The willingness of our volunteers to give up a week of their lives to spend time in Mexico and on the Reservation will never cease to amaze me. Our volunteers are the hands that distribute food & medicine and build latrines in Mexico, but they are also the encouraging role models and friendly faces that solidify the Simply Smiles dignity-first, relationship-based philosophy.

Field Notes from the Reservation: The complexities of being present

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is from Emma Russell, who is in the special category of super volunteer. In addition to her service in Mexico, Emma has shared her time and talents with Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Reservation beginning in 2008. Emma has parlayed her passion and on-going commitment to education to organize two college tours for middle and high school-aged students. The most recent trip in October 2015 was to the University of South Dakota, where nine female students from the town of La Plant, ranging from 7th to 12th grade, joined Emma and Simply Smiles staff member Alex on a two-day tour of the University. Below, Emma addresses the complexities of telling stories that honors relationships that she's made on the Reservation.

 Emma, having fun with the kids at camp on the Reservation. (August 2014)

Emma, having fun with the kids at camp on the Reservation. (August 2014)

Although I have had the profound privilege of being a part of Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Reservation since some of the very first days, I have yet to write anything about my experiences until now. A big part of me feels guilty and irresponsible for neglecting to put my many thoughts into written words, yet I have been hesitant for a reason.

To begin, I tend to be a perfectionist when writing and the weight of telling this story always seemed to leave me paralyzed, unable to write for fear of saying the wrong thing, or sharing something that is so grand and deep I could not possibly do it justice. From my very first months on the Reservation, I was acutely aware of my ignorance of this new place. I was truly an outsider, and this made telling the story uncomfortable. This, paired with my shock at the manner in which our nation’s gross past against Native Americans persists on reservations today (and my oblivion to it), made writing something adequate and all-encompassing feel impossible. Now, less ignorant, but still a world apart from the lives lived by those on the Reservation, another thing weighs on me: friendship.     

I will never fully understand what it is like to be Native and live with these heinous injustices that resonate loudly in present day. However, the countless times that I have seen children whom I have watched grow up for the past 7 years (and who are still children) question the worth of their own lives, I am equally as loudly reminded of this direct and tragic correlation between past and present. 

In today’s world, death and depression, particularly among native youth, are devastatingly substantial parts of the current narrative of reservations across America. Furthermore, these narratives are but a whisper among the majority of the country—if even that.

I have wrestled a serious conflict within me since setting foot on the CRST for the first time six summers ago. A conflict that involves telling a story that is certainly not mine to tell, but if I do not tell it, I become a part of the problem that has persisted for generations.

Which leads me to where I am today: staring at my computer screen with a profound love for all of my friends in La Plant, attempting to strike a balance with my words that maintains the level of respect they deserve, while still bearing the weight of a persisting injustice that I (both directly and indirectly) own.

Every year, I go back to live in La Plant and my heart breaks on multiple occasions. I am also, however, overcome with joy and hope for the future of the kids and teens in La Plant. While my recent trip in October was not without its heartbreaks, I want to share with you the positive anticipation that resounded while taking a group of nine incredible young women on the second ever Simply Smiles College Tour. 

 Nine students from the town of La Plant on the Reservation visit the Native American Cultural Center at the University of South Dakota. The Center is integral to Native student retention rates. (October 2015)

Nine students from the town of La Plant on the Reservation visit the Native American Cultural Center at the University of South Dakota. The Center is integral to Native student retention rates. (October 2015)

I have always believed that, more than almost anything else, education is a catalyst for social change. The young population of La Plant deserves to not only wonder, but also KNOW that college is a part of their futures if they so choose. On this trip, I was impressed over and over again by the girls’ questions, enthusiasm, and dreams. The girls asked about pre-medical programs, nursing, art, and veterinarian programs. They explored new concepts at the college fair such as anthropology and sociology. I reveled in the look of astonishment and admiration when they told faculty members from different programs that they were only in seventh/ninth/tenth grade. They displayed a maturity I have not seen in many people my age. I was ecstatic when the one senior on the trip made sure they attended the scholarship seminar upstairs and then filled out an application on the spot. The girls displayed the confidence and self-awareness to sit down at the big piano in the crowded student center and play songs they learned at music camp for all passing students (very well, I might add). They inspired everyone—from the faculty of the school, to the young women of the Coyotes Division I basketball team, to myself, to each other—with just how incredible they can be and what that means for their futures. 

 The students from the Reservation take a tour of the University of South Dakota campus. (October 2015)

The students from the Reservation take a tour of the University of South Dakota campus. (October 2015)

These young women demonstrated a self-confidence, excitement, and air of inquiry that I had not before felt or seen on my trips visiting schools as a prospective student…and some of them are only 12 years old. The goal for these Simply Smiles college trips is not just to ignite in the students the thrill and positive anticipation for their futures, although it is critical.

The youth in La Plant exist in a world where many have lost their peers, many under the age of 15, because young adults are constantly left to wonder if their lives are worth something—worth living. To combat this reality, this trip also promotes experiences that allow these young teens to realize just how extraordinary they are - something that we and the other adults in their lives are reminded of on a daily basis, but that can sometimes be lost on them.

I would say that it remains unfathomable to me that the current situation for Native Americans pervades as tragically as it does today, yet it is evident each time I set foot on the Rez. There is no question about the effect the past has had on the present situation. Native children ARE suffering as a direct result of society’s attempt to stifle their culture, their beliefs, their language, and rob them of their land and resources. We as a collective society need to continue to own those mistakes made and those that continue to be made and fight them.

While it all still saddens me and there is still a very long way to go, I feel exceptionally lucky to be a part of something that is not only trying, but succeeding, in doing this one college trip, one smile, and one friendship at a time.

 College tours not only enhance the prospect of a post-high school future, but that the lives of Native youth matter. (October 2015)

College tours not only enhance the prospect of a post-high school future, but that the lives of Native youth matter. (October 2015)

Field Notes from Mexico: An update from Gaby!

Alex Gross

This special Field Note comes from Gaby Chavez Hernandez, the program manager of our Mexican operations. As many in the Simply Smiles community know, Gaby was raised at Casa Hogar in Oaxaca and eventually became the first Simply Smiles scholarship recipient, which allowed her to study and live in the U.S. She graduated from Sacred Heart University in May 2015 with a degree in Business Administration and has been an integral part of Simply Smiles efforts in Connecticut, the Reservation, and Mexico. Read the latest insights from Gaby and about our Mexican projects under Gaby's leadership.

 Gaby, pictured above, at our Center of Operations in Oaxaca, Mexico, which is where our children's home is located and also where we host volunteers for a portion of their week with us!

Gaby, pictured above, at our Center of Operations in Oaxaca, Mexico, which is where our children's home is located and also where we host volunteers for a portion of their week with us!

It has been more than three months since I returned to Oaxaca.

This new adventure started a little over a year ago when I finally decided to tell people that, after graduating from college, I wanted to join the Simply Smiles team. I was sure that I wanted to return to Oaxaca. After I made that announcement, I started to be fully aware of what I was getting into!

On July 7, 2015, I flew back to Oaxaca and somehow I felt strong and weak at the same time. I felt strong because I was confident in my decision. Over the seven years that I spent in Connecticut with Simply Smiles, I learned a lot about the management of the whole organization. But, at the same time, I felt weak because this was the first time that I fully realized that it was time to proceed to my next adventure in life. 

Since the day I returned to Oaxaca, I have learned a lot. I have faced many challenges. But, little by little, I am readjusting to my lifestyle back in Oaxaca. Soon after my arrival to Oaxaca, I started to manage some of the existing programs that Simply Smiles has here. 

During these three months, we have been working on building our own children’s home in Oaxaca City at our Center of Operations. For now, we are excited to welcome two students: Ana and Jesús. The siblings moved from their village in southern Oaxaca, Santa Maria Tepexipana, to Oaxaca City to continue with their education. 

 Simply Smiles scholars Ana and Jesús at the Center of Operations in Oaxaca City!

Simply Smiles scholars Ana and Jesús at the Center of Operations in Oaxaca City!

We have also been working on finishing up more dormitories and bathrooms for our new children's home at our Center of Operations.

 The dorm rooms for the new children's home at the Center of Operations are taking shape, thanks to great people like our construction foreman Javier and our volunteers! 

The dorm rooms for the new children's home at the Center of Operations are taking shape, thanks to great people like our construction foreman Javier and our volunteers! 

While we are trying to make sure that Ana and Jesús are doing well here in Oaxaca City, we are also making sure that the students from Santa Maria Tepexipana have enough school supplies to work with during this school year. We are also getting ready for our next distribution of food and a medical clinic event in November.

 Preparations are in full swing for the November food distribution and medical clinic.

Preparations are in full swing for the November food distribution and medical clinic.

So, how am I doing overall?? At this point, I can say that I am doing great. However, "great" doesn’t mean that there haven’t been challenges while managing the work of Simply Smiles. But, during these challenges, I have adapted to the process and learned how to handle each situation. 

One of the greatest advantages that I have in this role is my ability to understand the cultural differences that exist in the U.S and Mexico. 

Besides taking on and managing my work responsibilities, I have had the opportunity to reconnect with my family. I have also reconnected with many of my friends, including my high school teachers. Each of them had encouraged me to do what I like and love to do. And after these three months, I am still happy and still excited for what I am doing back in Oaxaca. 

A few weeks ago, one of my high school professors told me, “The mark that you can make in this world is made by what you do in it, not by what you have in it." So, my hope for today is to make my own mark, and I hope to do it well. 

I would like to express my gratitude to everyone who has followed and supported me. To my parents and siblings: thanks for understanding my decisions and for continuing to follow me on my adventures. 

To my extended family and friends back in the U.S: thank you for believing in me and for always encouraging me to keep discovering my potential and for your unconditional love despite our distance now.

To the Simply Smiles community: thank you for your continued support because it gives me confidence that, together, we can provide better opportunities for youth here in Oaxaca.

Each day, I try to believe in myself, and I hope to learn and grow with each choice that I make in this new role. And I look forward to sharing updates with you during the many steps of this adventure!