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.
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.