Once Sam and I dropped Josh off at the airport at the end of our first week of “February Fun,” the thought of just the two of us trying to reign in the energy of 30 kids during winter camp became much more daunting. Our second week was the first time that Sam and I were organizing and executing a program without the help of additional staff or volunteers. It was also an opportunity for us to develop our relationships with the people of La Plant. We were relieved that even without the presence of people like Josh and Bryan and Kristen, kids still came to camp everyday, and families still attended our meals and special events. Sam and I held bingo night on Tuesday, a town-wide meal on Wednesday, and a Valentine’s Day party/movie night on Thursday. Luckily, many of our friends helped us out all week long. Patsy and Mike provided dinner and candy for our Valentine’s Day party, Sierra often helped us set up tables for camp, Erika and Devyn put away crafts supplies, and Mark and Roxanne were expert sweepers at the end of each day. Nonetheless, when Bryan and Kristen and Tom and Colin (two dedicated volunteers from Redding) arrived for our final week, we were glad to have some extra sets of hands. Some additional help is especially appreciated to remind the kids that they maybe should not hit each other in the face with bean bag chairs.
Sam and I began to figure out that the kids really love to channel their energy into making and producing something of their own. For instance, they LOVE baking, so we tried to have them prepare their own snacks a few times each week. Kristen also had the brilliant idea to write and record a song while she was here. You could see the kids’ creative juices flowing as they put their energy into coming up with lyrics. You can download the very catchy and upbeat song by clicking here, and all proceeds will go directly to this summer’s guitar camp!
The kids might make us crazy sometimes as they run around for hours, but they are often hilarious. For example, one day Laurent asked if I was born in the nineteens. I was a little confused at first, but then I realized what he was asking. Yes, Laurent, I was born in the last millennium... and now I feel old. And when I got back from dropping off Bryan and Kristen from the airport a few days ago, Sunshine asked where I had been. I told her, and she said very earnestly, “Well I’m glad you’re back now!” Then, a few minutes later, she told me my first name was not Zach, but Poop. I guess our relationship is pretty hot and cold.
The kids are so sweet and funny and intelligent, that it is easy to forget the environment in which they have grown up. One of the hardest things we have to do each day is take them home after camp. Many of the kids have loving families and neighbors, but all of them are exposed to death, suicide, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse in some form from such an early age. Sometimes it seems like the cards are stacked against everyone on the Reservation. This past week, we mourned the death of our friend, Collette. She was a kind and giving woman who was a great caretaker for her family and a very active force in the community. Her granddaughters now have to navigate through adolescence without such a dynamic and compassionate leader in their lives - a situation that seems so unfair that it angers me.
There is no shortage of sadness or injustice on the Reservation. In the course of conversation with our friends in La Plant, small anecdotes or comments often leave me speechless. For example, we were talking with one of our friends about how she budgets her money. Trying to find affordable, healthful food for her family is nearly impossible, and exorbitantly high utility costs mean that they are often in danger of having their water and electricity shut off. She declared, “We live expensive, but you just can’t see it.”
Moreover, our friend Elliot told us that he recently bought an amp to use for when his band and drum group plays. Nearly all of their “gigs” are not town-wide dinners or celebrations, but rather funerals. Elliot’s band mate, Greg, estimates that there are at least two funerals a month...in a town of only 200 people. And while Sam was picking kids up for camp one day, someone pointed out the cars in the graveyard and asked nonchalantly, “Oh, who’s getting buried today?”
But sadness does not have to be the normal for this town. We can create meaningful change in the lives of our friends on the Reservation. The presence of Simply Smiles and its teams of volunteers can provide an alternative. If we can create moments of joy, if we can make the children smile, if we can help to inspire them to learn and pursue what moves them, we can support them as they realize their full potential.
Our last two days in La Plant were filled with goodbyes, as people called or stopped by the community center (often multiple times) to check when exactly we were leaving. As we hugged our friends, many said how much they would miss us. In those moments, you could feel the momentum swinging toward an optimistic future. We have big things planned for our four months on the Reservation this spring and summer, and we can’t wait to head off on the big, red bus at the end of April to see our friends in La Plant once again!