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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.

Simply Smiles blog

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

I Am A Bag: Zach’s Whirlwind Summer (So Far)

Zach Gross

In the past three months, I have: made a cross-country road trip to the Cheyenne River Reservation on our big red bus; flown home for a two-week stint in the office to help launch Simply Smiles Coffee; flown back to South Dakota for two more weeks on the Reservation; flown down to Mexico for a medical clinic to treat thousands of people for intestinal worms and to host two volunteer groups; and flown back to South Dakota for the final six weeks of the summer. Now with just two more volunteer groups left this summer, I am baffled by how fast this season has gone by. I am also awed by how much the Simply Smiles community has been able to accomplish.

On the Reservation, the town of La Plant has a brand new pole barn with colorful new picnic tables, new powwow grounds, horseshoe pits, and a new spider web for kids to play on. Around town, volunteers have been renovating and remodeling two trailer homes. Kids have enjoyed hours of exciting summer camp games and crafts each week. Amazingly, the first brand new home will be completed soon, and we have more projects planned for the rest of the summer.

La Plant also has a new town garden. In just a few weeks, the site has gone from a patch of grass to a 1,250 square foot oasis complete with two greenhouses, eight raised beds, and a straw-bale compost bin. Lettuce, tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, beans, eggplants, squash, watermelon, cucumbers, rosemary, sage, chives, mint, cilantro and basil are all blossoming nicely and will continue to supplement our town-wide meals for the rest of the summer.

The garden is one project on which I’ve absolutely loved working. My (limited) expertise of gardening has allowed me to bond with many people from town. Both Patsy and Delema brought their grandkids to help plant seedlings and sow seeds, and seeing their faces light up each week as they watch the progress of the crops is wonderful. Raejynn helped plant beans with me and lovingly gave each seed a name. (We planted nearly 50 seeds.) Kids like Juanita and Wayne have taken ownership over the watering schedule, making sure that the soil is never dry for too long.

Planting lettuce with Ava and Patsy
Planting lettuce with Ava and Patsy

The garden has also sparked some fun conversations. One day Roland asked me if he could take home some “Mary Rose” from the garden because his doctor said it was good for him. After first responding that I had never heard of a plant called Mary Rose (is it a flower? an herb? an heirloom variety of tomato?), I realized he was talking about rosemary. Duh. And after the truckload of top soil was delivered, Lakita asked me what was under the tarp. Julian, who was standing nearby, confidently answered, “Soil; that’s where the food comes from!” He then thought for a second, and a confused look came over his face. He asked in maybe the most earnest way I’ve ever heard anyone ask a question, “Where do noodles come from??”

More than just providing free, organic vegetables (along with knowledge about healthful food and the mysterious source of noodles), the garden is a way to demonstrate self-sufficiency. Do we think everyone in town is suddenly going to put a garden in their backyard? Of course not. But if a ten-year-old girl is able to work the soil and nurture a plant from seed to plate, there’s a good chance she’ll grasp that producing for herself is possible. It could even instill in her some self-confidence and pride that she might have lacked before. The creative energy that emanates from the garden has transformative potential, and we hope to see La Plant’s garden (and its impact) expand each year.

In Mexico, volunteers this summer: completed the second floor rooms on top of the bodega, which will house friends who need a place to stay while visiting or studying in Oaxaca; broke ground on our new three-story dorm building, literally laying the foundation on a future home for both Simply Smiles volunteers and friends from around Oaxaca; organized countless bins of sheets, shoes, clothes, towels, food staples, and toiletries that they then distributed to our friends from the Oaxaca City garbage dump; and hosted a community meal at the Center of Operations. And of course, volunteers played soccer, got painted on, and made friendship bracelets, all in an effort to preserve and build the dignity of our friends in Mexico.


The scope of Simply Smiles is so diverse and far-reaching that we often don’t have the time to reflect on or even publicize our own accomplishments. One of these was an unprecedented health initiative we undertook in southern Oaxaca. At the end of June, a dedicated team of doctors, nurses, students and supporters carried out a clinic to treat the population of Santa María Tepexipana and its surrounding villages for intestinal worms. Over 2,500 people received medication to kill roundworm and hookworm. We were shocked (and a little overwhelmed) that so many families were willing to have their children provide a stool sample for us to test, but thankfully they did, and our team was able to identify the high-risk villages in the region. Our work continues with health education, retesting, retreatment on a case-by-case basis, and construction of sanitary facilities. But with this clinic, we took an enormous first step toward eradicating intestinal worms in this region.

Explaining the differences between our project locations in Oaxaca, Mexico and on the Reservation warrants another blog post...or two...or twenty, but both projects are challenging and rewarding. Mixing cement in Mexico can be equally as exhausting as shingling a house in La Plant. The stress of seeing over 1,000 people from a remote village stand in line to receive food is jarring, as is talking to a nine-year-old about suicide on the Reservation. But all of the experiences I’ve had with Simply Smiles have convinced me that the presence of our staff and volunteers is crucial, and that relationship building is the key to implementing change.

These relationships provide the context and foundation for all of the tangible work that we do to improve the daily lives of the people in Oaxaca and on the Reservation. That is why we were invited to sit at the “table of honor” and hand out diplomas at a graduation ceremony in the mountains of southern Oaxaca. That is why we received friendship bracelets and an incredible illustrated Zapotec-Spanish dictionary from a six-year-old. That is how we consistently earn hugs from kids - who miss us even when we go to the grocery store for a few hours.


In addition to all of the amazing moments I’ve experienced this summer, I can also add another chapter to the never-ending saga that is the confusion over my name. My entire life, I have inexplicably been called Josh (occasionally Jake or Jack) by about 75% of the people I meet. In Mexico, most people think my name is Isac, since Zach isn’t the most common name down there. When we were in Santa María a few weeks ago, I kept hearing people say my name in the food distribution line. Juan, our Director of Oaxacan Operations, noticed my paranoid expression as to why everyone was talking about me, and burst out laughing explaining that they were saying “sac”, which means bag in Zapotec. So, I will now respond to Zach, Josh, Jack, Jake, and apparently, Bag.

Every day I think about how fortunate I am to be able to work with Simply Smiles. I am truly honored to have met so many inspiring people in Mexico and on the Reservation, and I’m lucky enough to say that I have multiple homes. Every day I learn so much - about myself, about other people, and even about construction and office work.

So, yes, I guess I am a bag - collecting new skills, lifelong friendships, unforgettable memories - and I couldn’t be happier about it.