After a month of working in our Connecticut office, Simply Smiles Program Manager Alexandra Gross returned to the Reservation and was nothing short of impressed with all the visible changes. The following is her reflection on her first week back. Note: This post addresses the subject of suicide, which may be a sensitive or unsuitable topic for younger audiences. Reader discretion is advised.
Last Saturday, when I approached the Community Center in La Plant with a busload full of eager volunteers from Monroe and South Granby, I was so excited to see the physical transformation that occurred at our home base in just a month. The property now boasts a new split-rail fence. A colorful and intricately designed buffalo art instillation dots the landscape. And, after just one week, there’s a brand-new archery range. The shell of the new home construction project is painted a vibrant red and is well on its way for us to begin work on the interior of the structure. And, as the resident food grower, I was beyond thrilled to see the plants popping in the garden, basil and lettuce ready to be planted in the hydroponics system, and the end walls of the greenhouse go up, which begins the process to extend the growing season in the colder months.
I didn’t think it was possible, but my month away from the Reservation projects made me even more impressed and humbled by the work that we do. I’ll also go on record and say we have the best volunteers of any organization. Ever! Their fearlessness and willingness to make the trip out to the Reservation and give their entire physical and emotional person is a true testament to their strength and commitment.
And, the distance away did in fact confirm what I had previously written about in a blog post: Things will be ok. Things will grow.
It was also an enormous week for Simply Smiles as an organization: Our incredible, amazing Gaby officially signed on to run our Mexican operations and returned to Mexico to begin her journey. I’ll miss seeing her and enjoying her quick wit everyday, but the absence will just make our friendship grow stronger and make my future visits to Oaxaca that much more special.
The second major event: Wambli, our young friend from the Reservation, traveled with Zach back to Connecticut and attended Fairfield University's weeklong summer program for prospective students! Her mom arrived in Connecticut this weekend, and will also be visiting campus and also meeting our family and friends on the East Coast. As a friend of Wambli and Fairfield alum, my heart is bursting at the thought of her future there!
Although the exact nature of bright futures can be challenging to fully determine, both Gaby and Wambli are shining examples of leadership and pillars of hope for the youth that we serve and, really, for all of us in the Simply Smiles community.
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Now, onto the heavy part of my post.
In all of my adult life, I’ve never felt so heart-broken, helpless, defeated, and human as I did in this past week. We received word that a young woman from a neighboring town died by suicide. Although we did not know this young woman directly, she was a friend and teammate to many of the children whom we serve. In the days following, we also heard of a few suicide attempts.
We immediately went into crisis management, mitigation and mediation mode. We talked to all of the kids at camp, offering our ears and support. Most importantly, we confirmed how much they individually and collectively mean to us and reiterated that we are always, at all times, there if they need us.
The gravity of the young woman’s death, at only 14, and the attempts of others is unfathomable. How, at such a young age, is death a rational option? How can an individual that is so full of potential see the logic and, even glory, in dying at such a young age? Or, that they’ve somehow reached their peak before reaching adulthood?
On our weekly trip to Eagle Butte and Dairy Queen, I saw many cars placard with “R.I.P.”, along with streamers and other decorations that sought to memorialize the young woman. In the days following, there would be celebrations of life and a funeral service for the girl. I couldn't get past the fact that her death erred on the side of one big party, and not more seriously considered as what it is: an endemic.
According to the President’s December 2014 Native Youth Report:
Among U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 17, Native youth have the highest lifetime prevalence of major depressive episodes.
Native children are also 70% more likely to be identified in school as students with an emotional disturbance.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death— 2.5 times the national rate—for Native male youth in the 15 to 24 year old age group.
Further, in her April 2015 address on native youth, First Lady Michelle Obama made several poignant and pointed remarks:
“…we shouldn’t be surprised at the challenges that kids in Indian Country are facing today. And we should never forget that we played a role in this. Make no mistake about it – we own this.
And we can’t just invest a million here and a million there, or come up with some five year or ten-year plan and think we’re going to make a real impact. This is truly about nation-building, and it will require fresh thinking and a massive infusion of resources over generations. That’s right, not just years, but generations.”
As Americans, we should be embarrassed and ashamed by these realities. In these facts, I see the sweet, innocent faces of the children in La Plant. Their default reality is not and should not be OK. As the First Lady said, “We own this.”
No matter how many houses we build or physical seeds we sow, none of it matters if suicide rates continue at the pace and frequency at which they occur on Reservations. Fortunately, Simply Smiles is present for the children in La Plant, and, really, all who know that we are there. We forge personal relationships to the kids and families in town, and they know that the lines of communication are always open. Although the reality of youth suicide is ever present, I know and am comforted by the fact that we are making strides to prevent the frequency of such events.
Living and working on the Reservation is, well, a lot. You begin to embody the weight of the place. You have to be at the ready at all times, ready for the next crisis. We're always ready to give a hug, and both protect and encourage our young friends. It’s not exactly a stress-free life, but it’s one that my coworkers and I choose to live.
I’m still processing the week, and I likely will for the rest of my life. The staff will continue to learn more about crisis management and suicide prevention, and how to navigate the complexities of this reality.