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

Field Notes from Mexico: Insights from Yoonjong Lee, Choate student and dedicated volunteer

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 Mexico: Insights from Yoonjong Lee, Choate student and dedicated volunteer

Timothy Nurnberger

This March marked the start of our 2015 volunteer season at our sites in Oaxaca, Mexico and on the Cheyenne River Reservation. During the second week in March, Sam, Alex and Mexican Operations Manager Elute were joined by amazingly enthusiastic volunteers from Choate Rosemary Hall. At Simply Smiles, we are humbled by the ongoing support and participation of our volunteers. Our volunteers make our trips possible; they strengthen our relationships and partnerships in and among the communities and individuals we serve. Yoonjong "YJ" Lee is one such volunteer. Below, he shares his insights from his second service trip to Oaxaca with his Choate team.


YJ, center, works with his fellow Choate service team members to prepare for our food distribution program, or despensa, in the Oaxacan jungle town of Santa Maria Tepexipana.

YJ, center, works with his fellow Choate service team members to prepare for our food distribution program, or despensa, in the Oaxacan jungle town of Santa Maria Tepexipana.

From the hand-made black pottery at Doña Rosa in Oaxaca and the delicious cheese quesadillas in between the best road trip of my life, to the serene, captivating night sky of Santa Maria Tepexipana, my second trip with Simply Smiles was, once again, a very fulfilling, and humbling experience.

What amazed me the most about this trip was that I often found myself shocked by some of things that I saw during the week even though I had seen it all just a year before. Specifically, I was shocked to see, once again, people living on mile-high mountains of garbage at the Oaxaca city dump. Coming from an elite prep school in Connecticut, it's hard to imagine how the people at the Oaxaca City dump live without the things that I consider a given in my life like clean running water, an actual bed, and even an education. This constant feeling of “lack” was apparent all throughout the week and it seemed like no household that we visited could escape this atmosphere. I had always grown up with enough and often found myself associating with peers and friends that lived a life of “abundance.” The fact that I lived in a parallel world from the ones that my friends at the dump lived in continually terrorized me, ate away at me, and put me to shame.

Yet, when I actually spoke - or tried to speak with my broken Spanish - to my friends, the uneasy feeling dropped immediately.

YJ (left) and Choate schoolmate Nicole serve the children for a Sunday night dinner at Casa Hogar!

YJ (left) and Choate schoolmate Nicole serve the children for a Sunday night dinner at Casa Hogar!

Because I knew, the moment I took away the material difference between me and my friends, we were equals. I first understood this idea when I sat down and conversed with a family from the dump at our fiesta. Speaking in Spanish was one thing that I could not do last year, so I was glad that I was able to gather enough courage to initiate a conversation this year. I am pleased that I did so because, through my conversation with the family, I was able to see that they are just as capable of smiling and loving as I am despite the incredible hardship that they live through everyday. It was through their smiles and never-ending good vibes, that this family broke my conception that people in destitute poverty must be the unhappiest on Earth - quite the contrary, actually. This family showed me that happiness is a human emotion that material lack cannot take away. And much like my own and most other families around the world, this family was happy to have each other. 

Throughout my entire life, I thought doing community service meant helping the lesser, someone who is inherently lower than me, and I believe this is the conception of many who partake in community service today. But what I learned through Simply Smiles is that I am, in fact, helping my equal. 

Because the only difference between me and that one 17-year-old in Santa Maria is the socioeconomic status we were born into by chance. I am only one of the 7 billion that inhabit Earth. Yet because I am getting an education, not worrying about my next meal, and engaging in a plethora of fantastic opportunities offered at school, I inevitably fall into the top 1% of the world. But does this make me a superior to someone who isn’t in the top 1%? Absolutely not. Am I, however, in such a position that I am able to help a fellow human-being? Definitely.

Service to the community and towards others is so incredibly important because our world is filled with equals who do not have equal opportunity. Therefore, community service should not be something that we do so that we can improve our resume or make ourselves look like a better person, rather it should be done so that we can all, "thrive, not just survive."

Simply Smiles has made me, and I’m sure for hundreds of others, realize that there is more work to be done and that I want to devote my life in the field of service so that I can further help create brighter and sustainable futures for others, one smile at a time.