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Simply Smiles provides bright futures for children, families, and communities. The organization partners with populations in need to create physical and emotional environments where suffering is alleviated and from which local leaders can emerge.

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Simply Smiles blog

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

Field Notes from Oaxaca: Pushing comfort zones, and when a walk is more than just a walk

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is from Samantha de Lannoy, a recent graduate of Muhlenberg College, who has spent the past few months living and volunteering at the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico! In her thoughtful post, Sam talks about her time at the children’s home. Read more:


Arriving in Oaxaca at Simply Smiles, I was honestly a little overwhelmed. I had never been to Mexico or met most of the people I would be living with, but I was excited. Entering the front gate, I was greeted by the incredibly colorful children’s home and welcomed by four little boys, that I would soon get to know. Before I could even open the car door, they had already grabbed my two ginormous bags and carried them straight to the room that I would be staying in, thus beginning my summer in Oaxaca.

The days and months to follow were packed with fun moments, new experiences, great food, and awesome people. Even as I stumbled through getting used to the vocabulary and utilizing the Spanish that I did know, I constantly felt welcomed. My time here has taught me more than I can put into words, but I will share a little in an attempt to paint a picture of my experience here.

In May, I graduated college, and I left with the question of “what I am going to do with my life?”. While I still do not know, being here has taken me away from that and given me an opportunity to be more present.

One memory that I love occurred on a walk a few weeks ago. Although the children’s home is less than half a mile off the main road, it gets rural fairly quickly. This means long walks filled with wild flowers, waving grasses, picturesque mountain views, and the obvious flock of goats. On this particular walk, picking flowers was the number one priority, with two flower-picking missions simultaneously occurring. Emiliano was only looking for red flowers, which he meticulously picked throughout the walk. Lucia, on the other hand, was frantically yanking every flower in sight—roots and all—before shoving them into my hands and returning to her search.

By the end of the walk, I had, without exaggeration, what looked like a bush of flowers that required both of my hands. Lucia proceeded to throw this mountain of flowers into a repurposed yogurt container, complete with muddy water, which she placed on the table for all to enjoy. Emiliano, meanwhile, had created a small origami box for his red flowers, which he had tied into a cute bouquet and gifted to Gaby.

Both missions were equally endearing, yet completely different. At home, I usually go on walks to clear my mind from whatever chaos is going on, but this walk was just for the purpose of a walk and picking flowers to spread joy.

While being here has given me so many opportunities to think and relax, living in a new country did push me out of my comfort zone. I consider myself a pretty adaptable person, yet living in a different country is a little bit different. The first week felt like I was constantly asking people questions: What is a comal? Why are you drinking café (coffee) before dinner? And while I thought that I knew Spanish fairly well, I quickly realized that I really didn’t, and that I was going to have to learn local vocabulary. I tried to say “yes” to everything, even if I did not always know what I was saying yes to.

Through asking questions, trying new things, and saying “yes”, came so much understanding of not only the language, but culture, as well. I have eaten, played, and learned so many new and amazing things here. While in Oaxaca, I have had so many awesome opportunities to learn and explore. Some of these places include downtown Oaxaca, the local dump community, artisan workshops, Monte Albán, parks, and the movies. At each of these places, I picked up a little bit more knowledge. Heck, even going to Walmart Oaxaca taught me a lot!

While I am still not an expert on Oaxaca, I have learned so much about it. I have enjoyed trying to leave behind preconceived notions, asking why, and experiencing all that is new to me.

There is no simple way to sum up my summer here. I am incredibly fortunate to have been welcomed into this big family and to have had this experience. When I return home, I will be taking back all that I have learned and so many good stories. But, for the few remaining weeks I have left here, I will continue to enjoy the hugs I receive every morning as I walk out of my room and everything else that follows throughout the day.


Field Notes from Oaxaca: Health promotion in action

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is from Colleen Travers, a critical care nurse who has traveled with Simply Smiles on two of our medical clinics and food distributions in the village of Santa María Tepexipana (SMT) in Oaxaca, Mexico. In her thoughtful post, Colleen talks about putting her professional skills to use in a different capacity and witnessing the Simply Smiles approach in action. Read more:


Twice in the last three years, I have been fortunate enough to visit Santa María Tepexipana (SMT), a remote village in Oaxaca, Mexico. Each time, I have left a little piece of my heart with the people and the community there. This past December, after three successful days of a food distribution and medical clinic, as we drove through the winding dirt roads on our way out of town, I felt a sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, and overall purpose. Simply Smiles has allowed me to take part in its parasite eradication efforts and medical clinics, and it has turned out to be an experience far beyond administering medication.

Volunteer and nurse Colleen at the medical clinic and food distribution in Oaxaca in December 2018.

Volunteer and nurse Colleen at the medical clinic and food distribution in Oaxaca in December 2018.

I chose to leave my liberal arts career over a decade ago and pursue nursing, which has given me the opportunity to connect with people and communities. As a pediatric intensive care unit nurse, I have been privileged to care for families and patients in some of the most heartbreaking, as well as some of the most wondrous, parts of their lives. Aside from medical intervention and critical care knowledge, nursing is a gateway to connect with people in times of need and to provide care, education, and assistance when and wherever needed. Simply Smiles has been another path in allowing me to practice nursing in ways that are unconventional to that of my bedside career.

Global health and community health have always been passions of mine. Having been involved in educating nurses in Haiti, and my previous trip to Oaxaca with Simply Smiles, I knew I wanted to get involved again. Simply Smiles’ parasite eradication efforts encapsulate what community health nursing means to me. In community health, medical professionals look to focus on maintaining health, locations where healthcare can be improved, and providing protection in areas that appear vulnerable. Health promotion and disease prevention are key. Simply Smiles’ deworming initiative ties all of these ideas and values together. Simply put, if distributing medication was Simply Smiles’ sole role in intervention, there would be less of an impact on the village community; it would simply function as a band-aid to a much larger problem.

Simply Smiles works to take this to the next level by identifying the needs in Santa María Tepexipana and the surrounding villages, evaluating what can be done, and executing a plan. This has allowed for great success in the prevention and eradication of parasitic infection.

Sustainability is crucial in community health initiatives. In addition to medication administration, Simply Smiles provides long-term support and the resources that allow for eradication efforts to be successful. In addition to giving medicine to treat intestinal parasites, Simply Smiles promotes educating the community to reduce the spread of infection through proper hand-washing and footwear. It has also successfully built 137 latrines that are maintained by local families in remote areas of southern Oaxaca over the last few years.

As a nurse, I greatly appreciate working with an organization like Simply Smiles. In addition to practicing and providing reliable resources, there is a connection with the community in SMT that shines through. The smiles, the excitement, and the warm greetings from the SMT community stand out above all. Upon entering the community we were greeted with open arms. The children were smiling — eager to play and quick to correct my less-than-ideal Spanish grammar. As a returning volunteer, it was fulfilling to see familiar faces and how much the children had grown. The community connects with Simply Smiles and its volunteers and involves us like we are part of their family. This is the thing that stands out the most. When there is already a bond between communities, healthcare providers and relative outsiders like myself are have able to assist and make an impact.

Volunteer and nurse Colleen at the medical clinic and food distribution in Oaxaca in December 2018.

Volunteer and nurse Colleen at the medical clinic and food distribution in Oaxaca in December 2018.

While medical intervention has been the focus of my past visits to Oaxaca, there is so much more to the trips when I reflect on them. For me, they have meant seeing and experiencing a community unlike any that I would find in Boston (where I come from) or North Carolina (where I currently reside). These trips have allowed me the opportunity to open up to a new community that can provide new ways of looking at healthcare. They have allowed me, as a nurse, to understand the importance of access and reliability. And overall, they have opened the doors for me to connect with more people in an amazing place. I remain changed by the people and community of SMT and Simply Smiles both personally and professionally. Experiences like this one enable me to approach nursing and living with new perspective. I am ever grateful to Simply Smiles for involving me in such an important project.


Field Notes from Oaxaca: "There was cactus in my soup"

Alex Gross

This Field Note is from a multi-serving Simply Smiles volunteer and all-star community member, Betsy Van Loon. Over the years, Betsy has volunteered many times on the Reservation, but the following is her mid-week reflection during her first trip to the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico. And, learn the reasoning behind her unique post title here:


As is true with all Simply Smiles service trips, it’s challenging to find the right words. But, having cactus soup (sopa de nopales) is a good encapsulation of my experience so far: delicious, different, and deeply satisfying.

The Simply Smiles Home for Children is filled with bright colors, warm sun, amazing food, love, and laughter. There are 18 children, 2 dogs, 1 pig (a temporary visitor!), and numerous staff. This is a place of peace, security, cooperation, fun and function. I am a mother and a grandmother, and I would be happy to have any child raised in this place. This is the family that all children deserve and need to thrive.

Simply Smiles Volunteer Betsy Van Loon sharing some pictures, working with the kids at our children’s home on some homework, and learning some Spanish in the process!

Simply Smiles Volunteer Betsy Van Loon sharing some pictures, working with the kids at our children’s home on some homework, and learning some Spanish in the process!

During the week, the routine is simple and secure for the children. They are up early and dressed for school and have breakfast before they depart. No fussing, no fighting, and no drama. After school, the children immediately change from their uniforms to “play clothes.” Lunch is then served including homemade cactus soup. Then, it is time for homework. I can hear the children with the tutors downstairs as I am writing. After the work is done, it’s time for play.

American children are rushed from one activity to another, constantly under close adult supervision that often turns to interference. The children here are competent and independent. There is plenty of supervision but the children depend, with grace and energy, on each other and themselves. Each contributes to the community by doing their chores. Gaby and her staff have created an oasis of calm that touches the heart of all who come here.

The motto of Simply Smiles is “providing bright futures.” But every bright future depends on a happy today and the children’s home in Oaxaca is creating a happy today and another one tomorrow and the day after.

I am inviting everyone to come experience this place of peace and calm. Let yourself be surrounded by the love of the children and let them guide you through learning Spanish. They are supporting me in my grammatical goofs and gaffs with laughter and hugs.

And there is an endless supply of tortillas and black beans.

- Betsy

Say  queso!   The kids at the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico with volunteer Betsy Van Loon.

Say queso! The kids at the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico with volunteer Betsy Van Loon.


Staff Notes: A different path, a renewed passion

Zach Gross

Our most recent post comes from Samantha Steinmetz, the Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator. After six years as a Simply Smiles staff member and 10 years after her first volunteer experience, Sam will begin her studies as a master's student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration this fall. Read more about how Sam's experience and commitment to Simply Smiles influenced to her decision to enter this inspiring academic and social endeavor.


Almost ten years ago, I went on my very first volunteer trip with Simply Smiles to Oaxaca, Mexico. The day after graduating high school, I jumped on a plane to Oaxaca with my friends (including fellow Simply Smiles staffer Zach!). I quickly fell in love with the kids at the children’s home where we stayed, as well as with the families in the community where we were building homes. Most of all, I felt incredibly empowered as an 18 year old with broken Spanish. At the very least, I could make a child smile; at the very least, I could crack a joke and share stories with the family whose home we completed.

I returned to Oaxaca throughout my summers in college as a Simply Smiles intern, and I was hired soon after graduation to work for Simply Smiles full time — my actual dream job.

A little help from friends:  Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator Sam Steinmetz and her high school basketball coach Al Ciarlo, who has volunteered on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, help their young friend balance on newly constructed stilts at Simply Smiles Summer Camp.

A little help from friends: Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator Sam Steinmetz and her high school basketball coach Al Ciarlo, who has volunteered on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, help their young friend balance on newly constructed stilts at Simply Smiles Summer Camp.

For the last six years, I have split my time among Mexico, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, and Connecticut. Few things have made me happier than spending time in these communities, with people whom I now consider friends and family. As I grew up with Simply Smiles, I have been incredibly lucky to watch our kids on the Rez and in Oaxaca grow too, and to be a consistent part of their lives.

It has also been incredibly humbling to work with and get to know hundreds of compassionate volunteers each year as the Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator, sharing my love for Oaxaca and the Reservation with others, and witnessing the incredible changes that the Simply Smiles community has inspired in the lives of indigenous youth and families.

Throughout my years, I have seen our kids grow to be confident in themselves and in their dreams for the future, knowing that they are capable and worthy of achieving those dreams. These intangible achievements, I believe, are our greatest.

For anyone who has visited the Reservation, you know that living there, working there, can often be challenging—the isolation and the climate of the South Dakota plains, for one. But more challenging is bearing witness to the current reality of the Reservation, a reality our government manufactured generations ago, a reality that is forgotten about and continuously ignored today.

I have witnessed the product of U.S. government policies that have shaped the current culture of youth suicide in South Dakota. I have had to learn how to respond when children I love scream at me, and cry to me, sharing their thoughts of self harm and suicide. This is, of course, the hardest part of my job. Though we work to combat this problem by working together to design and implement amazing programs—hundreds of days of summer camp, field trips to Colorado and the Crazy Horse monument, internship opportunities for teenagers, basketball clinics and tournaments, college tours, trips to Connecticut and New York City— there is always the underlying worry that these efforts will not be enough to save lives. That the despair of the Reservation will prove to be too much for another child we have come to know.

Recently, a child with whom I had become very close took her own life at the age of 12. She was one of the young girls I befriended during my first extended stay on the Reservation throughout the whole month of February, the winter after Zach and I graduated college. After having spent the majority of our time with Simply Smiles in Oaxaca, we were less familiar with the Rez. I was not confident that I could even open one of the storage unit doors, let alone design and host a youth program in a place so different from Mexico. We ran after school camp inside the Community Center, with freezing weather outside, no running water, and one pick-up truck. I wondered how, after one volunteer trip to sunny Oaxaca, we had gotten ourselves in this situation. Through all these moments of self-doubt, cold days, long evenings, being thoroughly tested by these tough yet silly kids, and using every bit of patience and blind love, I formed a particular bond with this one bright, smart 8-year-old girl. I got to know her better over the next few years, before she ultimately moved away to another town on the Reservation. We kept in touch via Facebook occasionally over the years. And then, one day last spring, I learned she had died by suicide.

Too many children on Native American reservations grow up seeing suicide as an easy, accessible escape from their daily lives. This situation is the norm on reservations, where the ancestors of these kids were forced to live and never leave; where their relatives were killed at the hands of the government; where their living grandparents were forced into boarding schools, told that being Lakota was a sin, and forced to forget their language and culture; where there is a current culture of apathy in response to it all. It is here, on these reservations, that the federal government needs to make amends for the problems that it engineered, and to protect the lives of the children who are facing this reality. These communities need to be supported on an institutional level—to be given the opportunity to start to heal and self-determine their own future.

My work on the ground with Simply Smiles has inspired me to focus my energy toward addressing the mental health crisis on the Cheyenne River Reservation, and in Indian Country at large. Though I continue to love my work as a volunteer coordinator, the youth suicide epidemic on reservations throughout our country is one problem that needs more attention from the federal government and demands appropriate policies and support.

As such, I have decided to go to graduate school to learn more about mental health issues on both a clinical and policy level in order to work to develop mental health programs and facilities in reservation communities. With the foundation of my experience with Simply Smiles, these aspirations can be made into reality with a further education. I am happy to announce that I have been accepted to the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. Beginning this fall, this program will allow me to focus on youth and adolescent mental health policy, as well as gain clinical experience.

As much as it will hurt to not be directly working with Simply Smiles starting this August, working on mental health policy for reservation communities is where I believe I need to focus my attention for now, so that I can increase the scope of my impact. I have always believed, and still fully believe, in the Simply Smiles model that invests in the power of creating a smile that can build self worth and confidence and that is the first step to a brighter future. A big part of me would like to continue this work to focus on our kids on the Reservation, in Oaxaca, and their dreams. But I also want to tackle the issue from a different angle. I believe that systemic change requires both on-the-ground activists and well-informed policy makers working together, and earning my Master’s degree from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration will hopefully be my first step in pushing for change at a higher level.

I will be on the Reservation and in Mexico as much as possible throughout these next few years, sharing my new experiences, my goals, and dreams, with all of our kids. Simply Smiles will of course continue to fight every day for our kids and the brighter futures that they deserve.

Thank you to everyone in the Simply Smiles community who has supported me and our work. And a special thanks to our friends in Oaxaca and on the Reservation who inspire me each day. Simply Smiles will always be part of who I am and where I go.

Thank you,

Sam

Teamwork makes the dreamwork:  Sam and her former college basketball teammates from Saint Michael's College in Vermont worked with teens on the Reservation to host a basketball tournament.

Teamwork makes the dreamwork: Sam and her former college basketball teammates from Saint Michael's College in Vermont worked with teens on the Reservation to host a basketball tournament.


Big News! Simply Smiles takes a huge step on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation

Zach Gross

In order to expand the work and impact of Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ has leased Simply Smiles just over 8 acres of their land for a term of 99 years!

On this property (adjacent to the Sam D. Horse Community Center property in La Plant, South Dakota on the Reservation, where Simply Smiles currently runs its programming), we will build additional infrastructure that will work in conjunction with the Community Center property.

This expansion will increase our efforts, grow our partnerships, and allow us to work each day to create the smiles that lead to the brightest possible future for the children of Cheyenne River.

A bright future:  Outlined in orange is the 8.04-acre parcel of land, leased to Simply Smiles by the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ on June 1, 2018. To the right, you can see the La Plant Community Center.

A bright future: Outlined in orange is the 8.04-acre parcel of land, leased to Simply Smiles by the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ on June 1, 2018. To the right, you can see the La Plant Community Center.

Simply Smiles has put down our roots in La Plant, South Dakota. This is the town that welcomed us onto the Reservation almost ten years ago. Now, as we solidify our commitment to the Reservation and to Indian Country at large, we also solidify our commitment and our gratitude to the town of La Plant.

As you can imagine, entering into this lease was a lengthy and at times complicated process. We couldn't have done it without an amazing team that worked together for over two years toward a shared vision for Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

A special thank you to:

  • The Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ, Toni Buffalo, and Louie Blue Coat
  • The South Dakota Conference of the United Church of Christ, Rev. Gordon Rankin, and Attorney Bob Frieberg
  • Shipman & Goodwin, Attorney Sarah Westby, and Attorney Dame Catalan
  • Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton and Attorney David Smith
  • The people of La Plant
  • The Congregational Church members who live in La Plant and helped Simply Smiles to connect with, and develop a relationship with, the Dakota Association.
  • Simply Smiles donors and supporters!
Lease signing:  (Left to right): Simply Smiles Garden and Healthy Living Program Manager  Marcella Gilbert ; Simply Smiles Program Manager  Zach Gross ; Simply Smiles President and Founder  Bryan Nurnberger ; Transitional Associate Conference Minister for the Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota Conferences  Gordon Rankin ; Simply Smiles Board Member  Peter Bayers ; and South Dakota Conference Minister Emeritus  David Felton

Lease signing: (Left to right): Simply Smiles Garden and Healthy Living Program Manager Marcella Gilbert; Simply Smiles Program Manager Zach Gross; Simply Smiles President and Founder Bryan Nurnberger; Transitional Associate Conference Minister for the Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota Conferences Gordon Rankin; Simply Smiles Board Member Peter Bayers; and South Dakota Conference Minister Emeritus David Felton


Now, to address a few questions:

This is great news! When will Simply Smiles start developing the land?

In the coming years, Simply Smiles will incrementally add the infrastructure we need to the land. We’ll add utility connections and driveways first, then buildings for storage, housing, program implementation, and more! In the immediate future, you may see a Simply Smiles staff member on the land parcel putting in corner markers and/or a sign.

What about the Sam D. Horse Community Center?

Simply Smiles will continue to use the Community Center as the center of all Simply Smiles does on the Reservation. Because of the generosity of Simply Smiles supporters, volunteers, and our partners on the Reservation, we have invested a lot of energy and funding into make the community center in La Plant what it is today. What we build on the new land will be an expansion of the community center infrastructure we've already built.

You are leasing the land from a church group. Is Simply Smiles still a non-religious organization?

Yes. Simply Smiles is not officially connected to any one religion, faith, or belief system. We want to be able to work with anyone who shares our values and our vision. Remaining independent in this way is a central tenant to Simply Smiles programing being open, available, and feeling comfortable for everyone.

Why did Simply Smiles lease the land and not buy it outright?

We chose to lease the land and not buy it out of respect for the Lakota owners of the land. We wanted to make sure that in all of our actions that Simply Smiles is supporting and giving, not taking anything from the Lakota people. By leasing the property, the land stays in the ownership of Lakota people.

How long is the lease?

Simply Smiles is leasing the land from the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ for a term of 99 years. The lease began on June 1, 2018. Over these years, we will use the land to further the vision and mission of Simply Smiles.

Where is the leased property exactly?

The leased property is 8.04 acres and it lies between the Sam D. Horse Community Center land and Main St. The eastern border is the old Iowa Ave, adjacent to the community center. Access is along the western border on Main St, just south of the Congregational Church entrance.

Is everything with the lease solid legally? Land ownership can be a tricky thing on the Reservation...

Absolutely! The land is deeded/fee/non-trust land and a full year of effort was put into making sure the property was cleanly and legally owned by the Dakota Association and that they had the right to lease the land. The land was platted/surveyed, title checks were run, title insurance was secured, and multiple law firms supported the effort. We then developed a lease that protected both parties. All the legal ducks are neatly in a row making sure the land holding is stable for the next 99 years.

Will there be any Lakota ceremonies performed to bless the land?

We would love your input and help to make sure that before we break ground on the first building that we have honored the traditions and practices for a situation like this.

On June 3, 2018, the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ held a church service and blessing at the Virgin Creek (La Plant) Congregational Church.

On June 3, 2018, the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ held a church service and blessing at the Virgin Creek (La Plant) Congregational Church.

Deepening partnerships:  Bryan Nurnberger (left), Simply Smiles President and Founder and Toni Buffalo (right), Administrator of the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ sign the 99-year lease agreement, allowing Simply Smiles to continue and expand its programming on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota.

Deepening partnerships: Bryan Nurnberger (left), Simply Smiles President and Founder and Toni Buffalo (right), Administrator of the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ sign the 99-year lease agreement, allowing Simply Smiles to continue and expand its programming on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota.


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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

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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!

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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!”

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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:

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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.  

-Danielle

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)