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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.

The safe space of Simply Smiles: Insights from Summer Camp Director Marina Sachs

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The safe space of Simply Smiles: Insights from Summer Camp Director Marina Sachs

Alex Gross

Let this radicalize you, rather than lead you to despair.
— Mariame Kaba, American Activist and Organizer

I'd like to begin with a story from the Fourth of July.

It was a sweltering day on the Reservation at Simply Smiles Summer Camp, and the five hours of camp programming were spent playing outside, creating art, and several much-needed games of water balloon toss. Everyone was excited--campers, volunteers, and staff included--because it was a day of celebration. Evenings during the summer mean many things, but to Simply Smiles Art Camp Coordinator Elizabeth Schweizer and me, they meant Teen Time. 

Teen Time is a program that has developed throughout the past four summers at Simply Smiles as a safe space for teenagers to spend time together. This special window of time, between 6-8 p.m. on weekdays, is now an integral part of the fabric of Simply Smiles programming. 

Teen Time has offered youth, aged 12 and older, the opportunity to engage in college and career prep, cookouts at the Missouri River, Health and Wellness nights, workshops with Marcella Gilbert, art-making, and more. Outside of this window, teenagers have visited Job Corps and Haskell Indian Nations University, organized camping trips to neighboring states, and built and illustrated a tipi with the Keya Foundation. 

The most important component of Teen Time, however, is that the teenagers know that we, at Simply Smiles, are here for them and that we will always provide a safe, stable space for them.

So we're back on the Fourth of July, camp has just ended, and we're getting ready for Teen Time. I distinctly remember a conversation with Elizabeth wherein we wondered, "Are these teenagers even going to want to spend time with us tonight?" It's the Fourth of July, we thought, they would much rather be hanging out with their friends or family. But we pushed our worry aside, and set up for Teen Time. 

An hour later, we sent vehicles driven by our fearless team of interns to pick up teenagers from Swiftbird, Ridgeview, and La Plant. The evening was set up with art and music stations, s'mores and sparklers. Again, the worry crept into the back of my mind, "Why would the teens want to spend time with us at Simply Smiles, when they could be doing something 'cooler'?”

This worry is justified, in many senses, as adolescence is often a time for experimentation, rebellion, self-doubt, and identity development. And yet, at 6 p.m. the vehicles returned to the Community Center, and teenagers poured out. Teens who hadn't been at camp that day, but whose friends had told them about our July 4th gathering showed up. I was ecstatic. 

We spent the evening together--teenagers, interns, staff, and volunteers--playing cards, making music, taking photographs, and having a small cookout-- and it was so special. Sparklers and s'mores, of course, were the highlight of the evening. 

I cannot underscore enough how much it means that these teenagers, each with their own respective lives and stories, chose to spend that evening (and many more summer evenings) with Simply Smiles. At the end of the evening, one of the teenagers shared with me something I won't forget. She said that her family had gone to Sioux Falls for July 4th, but that she chose to stay home because she wanted to spend it with us. And this is not a commentary on her family life, but to underscore the importance of what it means to be truly present for someone else, the significance of building and maintaining a safe space. 

Throughout my adult life, I have worked tirelessly to support the creation of safe, stable spaces for youth. But, until this year, my role with Simply Smiles had been largely corollary. Ellie Storck (Simply Smiles Camp Director '17) and I created the Lakota Youth Speak Project in 2015, and introduced adolescent enrichment as part of Simply Smiles summer programming on the Reservation.

This year, however, I was honored to be the Summer Camp Director. Providing high-impact programming to more than 100 campers over the course of the summer, ages ages 4 to 17, is no easy feat, and I was, admittedly, intimidated. 

I have spent the past five years engaging in youth programming in one way or another. In 2015, I worked at The Country School in Madison, CT, directing their after-school programs and facilitating the first youth-organized TEDx conference in the Northeast. From 2016-2018, I worked with several community organizations that provided programming for underserved youth, most formatively as a visual art educator at Boston Green Academy, a Title-I public school in Boston. Now, pursuing my MFA at the University of Florida, I have continued my commitment to underserved youth through art workshops in incarceration facilities, and as a project organizer in schools and community spaces in Gainesville, Florida.  My fierce commitment to working with underserved youth was built with Simply Smiles on the Reservation. 

When the opportunity to be Summer Camp Director for the 2019 Season was presented, I knew that I could leverage the trust I had built in La Plant with my knowledge of youth programming to, hopefully, generate a successful 15 weeks of Summer Camp. And that we did!

This summer not only saw our highest attendance of youth (more than a hundred campers over the course of the summer!) but provided the most diverse body of activities to date. 

From daily hikes to rocket launches, gymnastics workshops and frisbee golf, foraging expeditions and STEAM learning, our Summer Camp was intentional, engaging, and safe. It would not have been possible without the time and support from our volunteers, the long-term commitment of our fearless intern team, and the full-time energy of the core staff. Yes, it was a lot of moving parts, and took significant planning, but it worked. 

As an ally, there's nothing more important than showing up and being present for our friends. Whether it be through a planned activity, or spending some time on the basketball court, being present for another person is an invaluable gift of reciprocity. 

I want to end with gratitude. If you spent time in La Plant this summer, then you consistently heard me remark in our Friday evening reflections that I am overwhelmed with gratitude to folks who choose to spend time with Simply Smiles. I have seen our summer programming shift and grow so significantly, it's amazing where we are now. Our youth programming now impacts hundreds of folks across several towns, whereas only five years ago it was a few dozen youth from La Plant. At camp, kids now remark that they can't wait to be old enough for Teen Time, and teenagers are having conversations with volunteers about college and future plans.

This kind of space is so special, and so safe for everyone. Our world needs more spaces like this: places for shared common ground, for play, and for community. I am so grateful to be connected to Simply Smiles and know that the future is much brighter because of this organization.

Marina Sachs served as the 2019 Simply Smiles Summer Camp Director and is an artist and educator currently living in Gainesville, FL, teaching and completing her MFA. Working in La Plant since 2015 has significantly altered her life. You can explore Marina’s work at @marina2mp3