“Esperamos, Sam.” “We will wait” is what Mari Cruz said to me as I forced out my goodbye to her and her family on my last day in the Santa Maria Tepexipana this summer. I had just explained to them, above the roar of pouring rain, that since I am now graduated and in the Smile Corp, I’ll be back soon, but unfortunately had to leave a day early. That morning I rushed over to say goodbye while tropical storm Ernesto was making its way through Oaxaca and was at full force in Santa Maria, so we had to postpone the food distribution for a week and decided we should leave before the road out of the jungle was too bad. But right as I made my way out the door intending to run back up the hill to help the group finish cleaning up the camp, Mari Cruz’s father, Don Aron, said to me, “Wait, you all are leaving right now?” And I explained that we thought that was the best plan because the rain could go on for days, but he disagreed because the rivers we drive through to get to Santa Maria would already be too high for the vans to pass. So we walked back up to our camp together, where we found Juan, Lula, Javier and Pete, and all decided we better wait until the rain was over and the road cleared before we made our departure. Lula and Javier thought the rain would end in just a few hours (while I was pretty convinced it would actually last a few days), and the truck used to clear the roads would be able to come that afternoon, so ultimately we decided to stick it out and leave in the morning. It was quite fortunate that Don Aron had our back, as word came that the roads were indeed too bad to go down, so we would have had to turn back anyway.
So, since flexibility is always
fun, we made the best out of the situation. Emma and I heated up some leftovers, we all played cards, listened to Eli and Pete play the guitar, and fortunately the rain did in fact end early in the afternoon. Even though my morning started off with being stuck in the rain, our plans being cancelled, and thinking my last day in Santa Maria with all my friends would be cut short, it actually turned into one of the best days of the summer and of my life.
When the rain stopped, all of our closest friends came up to our camp simply to hang out and enjoy the crafts that Lissa, one of our dedicated volunteers, brought down with her. We had blank white hats and fabric paint for people to decorate, and a polaroid camera, both of which everyone LOVED. Fathers, mothers and kids painted hats together for hours. A few families asked Emma and I to decorate hats for them, which was actually a little stressful, trying to make them perfect as they all wanted their names written out nicely along with “Recuerdo de Simply Smiles” or “Memory of Simply Smiles” next to a special design like a flower or star. Mine ended up coming out well enough, even though doing anything artistic takes up all of my concentration and effort, so since that wasn’t entirely possible, I’m pretty sure a couple of the people who asked me to decorate their hats were a little envious of the ones Emma did. I tried my best.
Word about the Polaroid camera spread quickly too, and a bunch of families from around the area made their way to our camp just to get their first family picture taken. Emma, Pete and I, as well as many of the volunteers, were also asked to join in many of the pictures which made it a unique, unforgettable experience for all.
That night, we had goat for dinner. The goat was retrieved by Javier who walked 2 hours away to a village to buy it, then 2 hours back, putting the goat on his shoulders to carry it through the rivers. He was quite proud of this feat, and the goat was great. We shared it with at least 30 people as we watched Disney’s “Tangled” which everyone adored.
Finally I said my goodbyes all over again
and then again at 6am the next morning before we actually left Santa Maria Tepexipana. Those goodbyes were a lot easier as I felt that after spending a relaxed day with our closest friends, sharing food, laughs and smiles, I could leave without any regrets. I was also assured by Mari Cruz, Ana Cristina and their whole families that they will be awaiting my return, and I promised them that I will be waiting to too.
Every week this summer I grew more aware of the impact we can have on peoples’ lives. Day after day I was truly humbled and grateful to be apart of such an incredible organization, and such a strong community of people, who are willing to help others through extending their hands as friends. Simply Smiles focuses on relationship building first. Throughout my last three years as an intern I can truly say that I am constantly amazed at how quickly we were able to establish such strong relationships with our friends in Santa Maria, and how we are able to sustain strong friendships at Casa Hogar and the city dump. Whether it was making a hat for Lula in the jungle, forcing Nacho to have a conversation with me about his dreams for the future in English at Casa Hogar, or playing basketball with Edith’s girls at the park, I continually saw how small acts of compassion can have huge effects, and that is the foundation of Simply Smiles. As an intern, I am lucky enough to return week after week and year after year which has allowed me to make lasting friends throughout Oaxaca, as well as form lifelong friendships with my fellow interns, and am able to become friends fast with all the incredible volunteers that I meet throughout the season. Building relationships, community, and friendships is how Simply Smiles improves peoples’ lives. The friendships that I have made from this summer alone have brought me countless laughs, a few tears, and have helped me grow as an intern and a person. Now, being back in the office in CT, working to support all we do in Mexico and South Dakota, all I can do is wait patiently to be reunited with them all once again.