contact us

Name
Name

1730 State Street Extension
Bridgeport, CT, 06605
United States

2038104041

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.

IMG_5881.JPG

Simply Smiles blog

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

Giving thanks for the Simply Smiles community

Alex Gross

Simply Smiles President & Founder, Bryan Nurnberger, is currently on a two-week visit to our programs in Oaxaca, Mexico. He sent us this dispatch from the place where Simply Smiles began and reflects on the theme of gratitude and its prominent place in our organization's history.


This morning, walking through a barrio of rusted tin houses, rutted dirt roads, and skeleton thin dogs, the smell of raw sewage triggered a part of my consciousness that reminded me of how much time I’ve spent in places like this. 

Open doors reveal glimpses of lives I can never really understand. My relative privilege has made that impossible. The most I can hope for is empathy… But I know an injustice when it is in front of me.

A view of some of the 27 brightly colored homes that Simply Smiles has built in the barrio within the Oaxaca City garbage dump.

A view of some of the 27 brightly colored homes that Simply Smiles has built in the barrio within the Oaxaca City garbage dump.

I’ve seen newborn babies born into environments completely devoid of hope. I’ve listened to so many stories of hardship, of suffering and of loss that they would be impossible to recount. I’ve felt the bone chilling cold inside a trailer home as a family gathered around an open oven door for warmth. In a garbage dump, where hundreds of people were living, I’ve smelled air so tainted with decomposing trash that it seemed too thick to be inhaled.

Places like Oaxaca, Mexico and the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota fill my senses. And when I first began Simply Smiles, the chemistry of combining overwhelming sights, sounds, smells and touches caused a profound reaction: Fear. 

It was fear that populated my fifth sense as I tasted its tartness in my mouth.

But it wasn’t a fear of physical or emotional harm. Nor was it a fear that I would somehow find myself forced to live and suffer in these places.  

Rather, it was a fear that I wouldn’t have the ability respond to what I was experiencing. It was a fear that I wouldn’t be able to help. I was scared of my position as a conduit between those in need and those who could give. I was petrified that nobody would respond to my stories of the realities on that Indian reservation or in those villages in Mexico.

Since 2003, nearly ten-thousand of you have responded. You’ve given hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours and donated millions of dollars. We’ve laid countless injustices at your feet and your response has been so generous that it sometimes feels unbelievable, like this has all been some kind of inspired dream.

But when I’m in places like this, living with those that Simply Smiles exists to serve, my senses are once again filled as I experience the depth and breadth of the the impact you have had - it’s indeed real, it’s tangible, and it has changed so many lives.

I have to be honest, I’m still scared. When you’re the one who tells the parents; “everything will be alright, we’re going to help you” the fear of not being able to fulfill that promise will always, to some degree, be part of the reality. 

However, that fear is now abated by confidence. A confidence that you provide with each offering of support to Simply Smiles.

We recently received a bright green envelope in the Simply Smiles mailbox. It was ten o’clock at night when I stopped by to pick up the mail, but the green envelope prompted me to open it. Inside there was a check for $1,534.69. The note read: 

Dear friends at Simply Smiles, My husband and I have been very fortunate and have paid off the mortgage on our house! In honor of all you do to provide homes for the people of La Plant, I am sending what I would have paid for my house this month.

I went to bed that night with no fear at all.

With the deepest gratitude,

Bryan

Gratitude in action:  Our donors, volunteers, and many members of the Simply Smiles community make it possible for us to answer the call for safe, new homes. You've provide - and continue to provide! - the physical and metaphorical foundations for housing projects on the Reservation. Thank you! (La Plant, South Dakota, August 2015)

Gratitude in action: Our donors, volunteers, and many members of the Simply Smiles community make it possible for us to answer the call for safe, new homes. You've provide - and continue to provide! - the physical and metaphorical foundations for housing projects on the Reservation. Thank you! (La Plant, South Dakota, August 2015)


Field Notes from Mexico: More progress made in our public health efforts

Alex Gross

This Field Note is brought to you by Simply Smiles Senior Program Manager Zach Gross, who recently returned from our Mexico projects, where we held our third medical testing and fifth treatment of parasitic intestinal worms.


On November 9, I returned home from a fantastic week in Oaxaca, Mexico working with our Mexican staff members and a team of volunteers to carry out our latest medical clinic to treat for intestinal parasites.

I am pleased to report that our latest round of testing shows that the infection rate is now at 20% across this region—down from 48% just two years ago!

Nurse Bernarda Lopez Ordaz helps us to distribute treatment to children in Santa Maria Tepexipana (November 2015)

Nurse Bernarda Lopez Ordaz helps us to distribute treatment to children in Santa Maria Tepexipana (November 2015)

Over the course of three days, 2,173 people from the remote villages of southern Oaxaca came to our food distribution in the town of Santa María Tepexipana and received a month’s supply of food staples. Everyone (except children under age two and nursing or pregnant women) also received a dose of albendazole, which rids the body of intestinal worms and their eggs.

Our method of collecting demographic and qualitative information from participating families allows us to target areas with the highest incidence of intestinal parasites.

Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'Italien tests stool samples to determine the effectiveness of treatment. Gil has spearheaded our approach to eradicating parasitic intestinal worms in the region. (November 2015)

Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'Italien tests stool samples to determine the effectiveness of treatment. Gil has spearheaded our approach to eradicating parasitic intestinal worms in the region. (November 2015)

The infection rate on our final day of testing was 0%—meaning there were no positive samples among children in those villages.

These latest results are certainly encouraging, and they prove that our multifaceted public health initiative is having a directly positive impact on the health of children and families in Oaxaca.

But we still have work to do. A 20% infection rate is not 10%, which the World Health Organization deems the level at which treatment can occur on a case-by-case basis. And it’s not an overall rate of 0% — which is our ultimate goal, so that soil-transmitted intestinal worms are no longer a reality for families in the region.

Until that time, we will continue to treat the entire population. We will also continue working with the local schools to implement health programs, passing out informational literature on methods of prevention, and building more latrines and hand-washing stations—particularly in villages with the highest infection rates.

While the test results are a reliable, scientific method of measuring the impact of this public health initiative, other, more “subjective” methods are perhaps more telling of our overall impact in this region.

As soon as we first visited this remote part of Oaxaca in 2009, we saw the distended bellies, vacant stares, and malnutrition spots — all signs that intestinal parasites were plaguing the children and families there.

Rather than coming in as outsiders with microscopes and pills, we knew that in order to have long-term success in this region, we needed to form friendships first.

We needed to build trust and prove ourselves worthy of that trust and friendship through our actions. Because of these foundational relationships, we can continue to effectively implement all of our initiatives and measure their effectiveness,

Over the past few weeks, we have collected responses from various supporters and friends at our project sites about what Simply Smiles means to them. We asked our friend, Matea Figeuroa Santiaguez, from Santa María to explain how she sees Simply Smiles. She made note of our “humanitarian support,” referring specifically to the our distributions and school construction, but she really focused on the relationships she’s made with Simply Smiles staff and volunteers over the years—on the people behind the projects.

We appreciate all of the people who make this work possible, and we hope to maintain our friendships with those who visit us in this tiny corner of Mexico. We admire everyone we’ve met from different countries, and we in Tepexipana feel so proud to have made so many new friends over the years. We cannot thank everyone enough for all of their support — especially for the personal energy and sacrifice that each volunteer makes just to be with us in our town.
— Matea Figeuroa Santiaguez, resident, Santa Maria Tepexipana

 

The willingness of our volunteers to give up a week of their lives to spend time in Mexico and on the Reservation will never cease to amaze me. Our volunteers are the hands that distribute food & medicine and build latrines in Mexico, but they are also the encouraging role models and friendly faces that solidify the Simply Smiles dignity-first, relationship-based philosophy.


Field Notes from the Reservation: The complexities of being present

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is from Emma Russell, who is in the special category of super volunteer. In addition to her service in Mexico, Emma has shared her time and talents with Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Reservation beginning in 2008. Emma has parlayed her passion and on-going commitment to education to organize two college tours for middle and high school-aged students. The most recent trip in October 2015 was to the University of South Dakota, where nine female students from the town of La Plant, ranging from 7th to 12th grade, joined Emma and Simply Smiles staff member Alex on a two-day tour of the University. Below, Emma addresses the complexities of telling stories that honors relationships that she's made on the Reservation.


Emma, having fun with the kids at camp on the Reservation. (August 2014)

Emma, having fun with the kids at camp on the Reservation. (August 2014)

Although I have had the profound privilege of being a part of Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Reservation since some of the very first days, I have yet to write anything about my experiences until now. A big part of me feels guilty and irresponsible for neglecting to put my many thoughts into written words, yet I have been hesitant for a reason.

To begin, I tend to be a perfectionist when writing and the weight of telling this story always seemed to leave me paralyzed, unable to write for fear of saying the wrong thing, or sharing something that is so grand and deep I could not possibly do it justice. From my very first months on the Reservation, I was acutely aware of my ignorance of this new place. I was truly an outsider, and this made telling the story uncomfortable. This, paired with my shock at the manner in which our nation’s gross past against Native Americans persists on reservations today (and my oblivion to it), made writing something adequate and all-encompassing feel impossible. Now, less ignorant, but still a world apart from the lives lived by those on the Reservation, another thing weighs on me: friendship.     

I will never fully understand what it is like to be Native and live with these heinous injustices that resonate loudly in present day. However, the countless times that I have seen children whom I have watched grow up for the past 7 years (and who are still children) question the worth of their own lives, I am equally as loudly reminded of this direct and tragic correlation between past and present. 

In today’s world, death and depression, particularly among native youth, are devastatingly substantial parts of the current narrative of reservations across America. Furthermore, these narratives are but a whisper among the majority of the country—if even that.

I have wrestled a serious conflict within me since setting foot on the CRST for the first time six summers ago. A conflict that involves telling a story that is certainly not mine to tell, but if I do not tell it, I become a part of the problem that has persisted for generations.

Which leads me to where I am today: staring at my computer screen with a profound love for all of my friends in La Plant, attempting to strike a balance with my words that maintains the level of respect they deserve, while still bearing the weight of a persisting injustice that I (both directly and indirectly) own.

Every year, I go back to live in La Plant and my heart breaks on multiple occasions. I am also, however, overcome with joy and hope for the future of the kids and teens in La Plant. While my recent trip in October was not without its heartbreaks, I want to share with you the positive anticipation that resounded while taking a group of nine incredible young women on the second ever Simply Smiles College Tour. 

Nine students from the town of La Plant on the Reservation visit the Native American Cultural Center at the University of South Dakota. The Center is integral to Native student retention rates. (October 2015)

Nine students from the town of La Plant on the Reservation visit the Native American Cultural Center at the University of South Dakota. The Center is integral to Native student retention rates. (October 2015)

I have always believed that, more than almost anything else, education is a catalyst for social change. The young population of La Plant deserves to not only wonder, but also KNOW that college is a part of their futures if they so choose. On this trip, I was impressed over and over again by the girls’ questions, enthusiasm, and dreams. The girls asked about pre-medical programs, nursing, art, and veterinarian programs. They explored new concepts at the college fair such as anthropology and sociology. I reveled in the look of astonishment and admiration when they told faculty members from different programs that they were only in seventh/ninth/tenth grade. They displayed a maturity I have not seen in many people my age. I was ecstatic when the one senior on the trip made sure they attended the scholarship seminar upstairs and then filled out an application on the spot. The girls displayed the confidence and self-awareness to sit down at the big piano in the crowded student center and play songs they learned at music camp for all passing students (very well, I might add). They inspired everyone—from the faculty of the school, to the young women of the Coyotes Division I basketball team, to myself, to each other—with just how incredible they can be and what that means for their futures. 

The students from the Reservation take a tour of the University of South Dakota campus. (October 2015)

The students from the Reservation take a tour of the University of South Dakota campus. (October 2015)

These young women demonstrated a self-confidence, excitement, and air of inquiry that I had not before felt or seen on my trips visiting schools as a prospective student…and some of them are only 12 years old. The goal for these Simply Smiles college trips is not just to ignite in the students the thrill and positive anticipation for their futures, although it is critical.

The youth in La Plant exist in a world where many have lost their peers, many under the age of 15, because young adults are constantly left to wonder if their lives are worth something—worth living. To combat this reality, this trip also promotes experiences that allow these young teens to realize just how extraordinary they are - something that we and the other adults in their lives are reminded of on a daily basis, but that can sometimes be lost on them.

I would say that it remains unfathomable to me that the current situation for Native Americans pervades as tragically as it does today, yet it is evident each time I set foot on the Rez. There is no question about the effect the past has had on the present situation. Native children ARE suffering as a direct result of society’s attempt to stifle their culture, their beliefs, their language, and rob them of their land and resources. We as a collective society need to continue to own those mistakes made and those that continue to be made and fight them.

While it all still saddens me and there is still a very long way to go, I feel exceptionally lucky to be a part of something that is not only trying, but succeeding, in doing this one college trip, one smile, and one friendship at a time.

College tours not only enhance the prospect of a post-high school future, but that the lives of Native youth matter. (October 2015)

College tours not only enhance the prospect of a post-high school future, but that the lives of Native youth matter. (October 2015)

Field Notes from Mexico: An update from Gaby!

Alex Gross

This special Field Note comes from Gaby Chavez Hernandez, the program manager of our Mexican operations. As many in the Simply Smiles community know, Gaby was raised at Casa Hogar in Oaxaca and eventually became the first Simply Smiles scholarship recipient, which allowed her to study and live in the U.S. She graduated from Sacred Heart University in May 2015 with a degree in Business Administration and has been an integral part of Simply Smiles efforts in Connecticut, the Reservation, and Mexico. Read the latest insights from Gaby and about our Mexican projects under Gaby's leadership.


Gaby, pictured above, at our Center of Operations in Oaxaca, Mexico, which is where our children's home is located and also where we host volunteers for a portion of their week with us!

Gaby, pictured above, at our Center of Operations in Oaxaca, Mexico, which is where our children's home is located and also where we host volunteers for a portion of their week with us!

It has been more than three months since I returned to Oaxaca.

This new adventure started a little over a year ago when I finally decided to tell people that, after graduating from college, I wanted to join the Simply Smiles team. I was sure that I wanted to return to Oaxaca. After I made that announcement, I started to be fully aware of what I was getting into!

On July 7, 2015, I flew back to Oaxaca and somehow I felt strong and weak at the same time. I felt strong because I was confident in my decision. Over the seven years that I spent in Connecticut with Simply Smiles, I learned a lot about the management of the whole organization. But, at the same time, I felt weak because this was the first time that I fully realized that it was time to proceed to my next adventure in life. 

Since the day I returned to Oaxaca, I have learned a lot. I have faced many challenges. But, little by little, I am readjusting to my lifestyle back in Oaxaca. Soon after my arrival to Oaxaca, I started to manage some of the existing programs that Simply Smiles has here. 

During these three months, we have been working on building our own children’s home in Oaxaca City at our Center of Operations. For now, we are excited to welcome two students: Ana and Jesús. The siblings moved from their village in southern Oaxaca, Santa Maria Tepexipana, to Oaxaca City to continue with their education. 

Simply Smiles scholars Ana and Jesús at the Center of Operations in Oaxaca City!

Simply Smiles scholars Ana and Jesús at the Center of Operations in Oaxaca City!

We have also been working on finishing up more dormitories and bathrooms for our new children's home at our Center of Operations.

The dorm rooms for the new children's home at the Center of Operations are taking shape, thanks to great people like our construction foreman Javier and our volunteers!

The dorm rooms for the new children's home at the Center of Operations are taking shape, thanks to great people like our construction foreman Javier and our volunteers!

While we are trying to make sure that Ana and Jesús are doing well here in Oaxaca City, we are also making sure that the students from Santa Maria Tepexipana have enough school supplies to work with during this school year. We are also getting ready for our next distribution of food and a medical clinic event in November.

Preparations are in full swing for the November food distribution and medical clinic.

Preparations are in full swing for the November food distribution and medical clinic.

So, how am I doing overall?? At this point, I can say that I am doing great. However, "great" doesn’t mean that there haven’t been challenges while managing the work of Simply Smiles. But, during these challenges, I have adapted to the process and learned how to handle each situation. 

One of the greatest advantages that I have in this role is my ability to understand the cultural differences that exist in the U.S and Mexico. 

Besides taking on and managing my work responsibilities, I have had the opportunity to reconnect with my family. I have also reconnected with many of my friends, including my high school teachers. Each of them had encouraged me to do what I like and love to do. And after these three months, I am still happy and still excited for what I am doing back in Oaxaca. 

A few weeks ago, one of my high school professors told me, “The mark that you can make in this world is made by what you do in it, not by what you have in it." So, my hope for today is to make my own mark, and I hope to do it well. 

I would like to express my gratitude to everyone who has followed and supported me. To my parents and siblings: thanks for understanding my decisions and for continuing to follow me on my adventures. 

To my extended family and friends back in the U.S: thank you for believing in me and for always encouraging me to keep discovering my potential and for your unconditional love despite our distance now.

To the Simply Smiles community: thank you for your continued support because it gives me confidence that, together, we can provide better opportunities for youth here in Oaxaca.

Each day, I try to believe in myself, and I hope to learn and grow with each choice that I make in this new role. And I look forward to sharing updates with you during the many steps of this adventure!

Field Notes from the Reservation: The La Plant Music Camp rocks the Unity Concert in the Black Hills!

Alex Gross

On the hazy, humid morning of Sunday, August 30, 2015, a group of 14 bleary eyed children and a handful of parents and grandparents from La Plant on the Cheyenne River Reservation boarded the big red bus and headed to the Black Hills. The sound system on the bus looped "Puff the Magic Dragon," "This Little Light of Mine," "If I Had A Hammer," and Kristen Graves' "Keep Hope Alive" throughout the journey. The kids had all been practicing these songs during Music Camp with Kristen, and this trip to the Black Hills was the culmination of their practice. They would perform on stage at The Unity Concert, a weekend-long concert that celebrated the sacred place through music, culture, peace, and justice. Spoiler: The kids closed out the festival! Take a look:

The word "proud" doesn't even begin to sum up how we felt about the experience. The kids performed with a confidence that even seasoned performers envy. Their voices were clear, their energy was high. In short: They nailed it! Unity Concert organizer and musician Bethany Yarrow noted that the La Plant Music Camp kids were the highlight of the three-day performances. The crowd even requested an encore!

It was a long, exciting, magical day for all of us. As we drove the bus back to La Plant, the kids giggled, started impromptu, silly verses of "This Little Light of Mine," and many eventually succumbed to their exhaustion, with big, contented smiles on their faces. 

It was truly the perfect, celebratory punctuation to the end of our time on the Reservation for the 2015 summer season. In many ways, this performance is just the beginning of future musical endeavors for the La Plant Music Camp.

A big, big "thank you" to Kristen Graves for spearheading and inspiring Music Camp, and to Peter Yarrow, Bethany Yarrow, and the organizers of the Unity Concert for making this opportunity possible for the La Plant kids! And, a HUGE "thank you" to members of the Simply Smiles family for supporting and nurturing fun, unique, and monumental excursions like this for the children and their families on the Reservation.

And, of course, thanks to the La Plant Music Camp kids for rockin' on!


Field Notes from the Reservation: It's what we do with our experience that matters

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is brought to you by Fairfield University students and first-time volunteers Elena Berube and Becca Quillard. This is the second year a student volunteer group from Fairfield has joined us on the Reservation, which is all the more special as it is Zach and Alex's alma mater!

It’s 2:30PM and the big red bus is on its way to big things. You can hear the ice cream truck music playing, the daily signal that camp has started. You can see the kids running to the bus, eager to get to the community center. The bright colors all around the community center symbolize the happy atmosphere that this place creates for the kids. As a volunteer, this moment is a reminder of why we are here.

Over the past four days, we have been working on various construction projects for some of the community members. When we started these work projects on our second day, we hadn’t met any of the community members. Once we finally met them, it meant so much more because there were intentions and emotions behind our work. Spending the afternoon working with the kids at camp really helps us to reestablish the purpose of being here, seeing how the work we are doing has the power to improve the lives of the kids and their families.   

Smiles abound among our interns and volunteers at the new house project, including Nakia Letang, associate director of admissions at Fairfield University, and Dom Mastroni, from Milford, CT! (Z. Gross, August 2015, La Plant")

Smiles abound among our interns and volunteers at the new house project, including Nakia Letang, associate director of admissions at Fairfield University, and Dom Mastroni, from Milford, CT! (Z. Gross, August 2015, La Plant")

As college students we may think that we have been exposed to more knowledge, but we have found that the wisdom of our new friends in La Plant far exceeds our understanding of life. In four short days, we have learned more from them than we can in a typical classroom setting.

A La Plant resident talked about how valuable a college degree is, but reminded us that “an education means nothing if it is artificial, missing parts. It’s like math without the zeros.” For us this showed how important education is, but even with the degree, it’s what we do with it that matters. 

There's always time to swing! (Z. Gross, August 2015, La Plant)

There's always time to swing! (Z. Gross, August 2015, La Plant)

We’ve found that the children are opening up to us now that we have spent more time listening and playing with them. We hope that they understand the importance of education and recognize their power to change the world. Of course we are are encouraging them to become fellow Stags! 

It’s now 5:30 PM and the big red bus is pulling out of the Simply Smiles parking lot, dogs chasing alongside. The kids are begging us to swing longer, paint another face, or join them for a ride. They leave happier than when they first arrived, eager for another day at summer camp. 


Field Notes from the Reservation: Settling in, adjusting to temperatures, and muddy play day fun!

Alex Gross

The following Field Notes are from Silver Lake Conference Center and Essex Congregational Church volunteers Joanne Taber and Katie Holden.

We arrived on Saturday evening to a 100 degree Big Red bus ride. The 19 of us settled in and went to bed in the community center after a delicious dinner. 

On Sunday morning, we all woke up an hour early and headed off on a tour of the Sam D. Horse Community Center and the town of La Plant. That evening, we enjoyed meeting the townspeople at a town-wide meal of macaroni and cheese (secret ingredient: cauliflower!). The night concluded with a rousing game of kickball before dark. 

Monday morning was our first day of work and camp. The temperature dropped to 60 degrees with clear skies. We worked on the edge of the basketball court, painted the side of the rock wall, continued work on the pellet sheds for the new houses, started construction of the garden shed stairs, cut out two buffaloes, and completed other odd jobs.

Inner artist:  Mary from the Silver Lake group expertly paints a "Starry Night"-inspired buffalo to add to our whimsical herd that dots the prairie around the Community Center in La Plant. (A.Gross, La Plant, August 2015)

Inner artist: Mary from the Silver Lake group expertly paints a "Starry Night"-inspired buffalo to add to our whimsical herd that dots the prairie around the Community Center in La Plant. (A.Gross, La Plant, August 2015)

Tuesday, we woke up to pouring rain, Gumbo mud, and fallen temperatures. In typical Simply Smiles manner, we adjusted and had a fun and flexible day. Progress was made on all jobs with a focus on painting rooms in new houses, new road signs, buffalo models, and the final rock wall side. Construction started on the new and improved movie screen that has been in the works for a year!

We look forward to the next three days as we continue to build our new relationships. 

Muddy day fun on the new playground!  Nothing deterred the kids from having fun after quite the rainstorm on Tuesday! (Z.Gross, La Plant, August 2015)

Muddy day fun on the new playground! Nothing deterred the kids from having fun after quite the rainstorm on Tuesday! (Z.Gross, La Plant, August 2015)


Field Notes from the Reservation: Field trips & raising walls - all in a day's work

Alex Gross

For the second time this week, volunteers Kathy West and Stu Constantine from First Congregational Church of Stamford bring you their insights from their latest experiences here in La Plant on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Wednesday marked the midpoint of our week in La Plant. We’ve been lucky with the weather — clear and dry days, not too hot. In fact. the morning today was quite cool with a breeze. We started the day by hosting a community breakfast of waffles with real Vermont maple syrup brought in by the team from Guilford, Vermont. Quite a few people from town joined us, along with some of the kids and we had a full house out on the patio. 

After breakfast the teams continued on the various work projects, making good progress all around. We came back for lunch, and then we all got into the bus for a trip to the river for an afternoon of swimming with the kids. All the kids were teamed up with volunteer buddies to help keep an eye on them in the water. It was a nice way to spend a hot afternoon, and the kids loved to swim and eat snacks. 

River fun! (Z. Gross, August 2015)

River fun! (Z. Gross, August 2015)

After getting back from the river we had just a few minutes to change, then it was back on the bus for a trip to Eagle Butte for dinner and dessert at the local Dairy Queen, a special treat. Everyone is getting along really well, and the kids have been having a great time with so many young people to play with (they seem to have more fun with the high school kids than the grown-ups!). As the week goes on. we’re all settling into the rhythm of this place - taking time getting to know each other and the people in the community and really living in a communal fashion. It’s quite a difference from life back on the East Coast. 

* * * * *

On Thursday morning, we experienced our first South Dakota thunderstorm. It happened right after we finished our morning mile walk. And as promised, the rain turned the dirt into something they refer to as “gumbo”— thick, muddy clay! It took us all day to clean up after tracking it in over and over again (yeah, thanks, I was on floor duty).  

It was a special day for the kids as it was movie day! All the kids and half of the volunteers traveled to Pierre (by the way, pronounced ‘pier’) to see the Minions movie. For some kids, it was the first time that they had seen a movie! Can you imagine having to travel 1 1/2 hours to see a movie?!  

While many were enjoying the air conditioning and popcorn, the rest of us made an amazing amount of progress with the houses that are being built. We finished taping and mudding (compounding) all the rooms, finishing all the interior walls, and fixed the aforementioned soffit. Also, the Vermont crew finished the shed for the completed house. More cement was poured for the continuing pathways and we also finished our huge buffalo cut-outs that were specially designed by the artists in the group! Then we had to dig MORE three foot holes to mount the finished buffalos.

Thursday evening was Artisan Night and the local tribe members came with their beautiful jewelry , etc to sell. They sold out quickly and even had mail orders to start working on.  

Lastly, did we mention that the food has been incredible? The menus consist of a lot of really healthy stuff and we are pretty spoiled now. The work is hard and the kids are a handful, but of course, it is always worthwhile.

During our weekly cooking class, homemade pizza was on the menu, loaded with vegetables, including basil grown in our hydroponics system, and homemade dough! Both delicious and budget friendly! (A.Gross, August 2015, La Plant)

During our weekly cooking class, homemade pizza was on the menu, loaded with vegetables, including basil grown in our hydroponics system, and homemade dough! Both delicious and budget friendly! (A.Gross, August 2015, La Plant)

Field Notes from the Reservation: No rest for the weary!

Alex Gross

Today’s blog posts are brought to you by volunteers Kathy West and Stu Constantine from First Congregational Church of Stamford. 

We arrived on Saturday evening and acclimated ourselves, going to sleep with full stomachs and a big orange moon in the night sky. We’re all sleeping together on the floor of the community building, and thankfully no one snored too loudly. 

Sunday was a beautiful day, not too hot with a nice breeze and bright blue skies. After a pancake breakfast we got a full tour of the community center. We learned about the history of the community center building, and how it was fully renovated a few years back. The land for the community center was donated by Sam D. Horse several years ago, with hopes that it would help to create a gather point for youth and their families in the area. We learned about the garden, and the plans for expanding the high tunnel structure into a full greenhouse. We also got a tour of the new horseshoe pits, which are built to official specs. 

Later, we toured the town of La Plant, learning about the history of the community and some of the challenges faced by the people living here. We saw the house currently under construction, and also saw one house that will be completed by the end of the summer. 

After lunch we broke into teams and went off to various project sites to make some progress, and to get ourselves set up for a full day on Monday. For those who thought we wouldn’t have enough to do, we’ll be putting up a ceiling and interior walls in the new house, building two storage sheds, a climbing wall, a new walkway, and preparing the ground for a new playground, among other things! 

Sunday night we had a community dinner, with several local families joining us for grilled chicken and salad. After dinner the kids played a huge game of kickball as the sun set while the older folks played horseshoes and traded stories. We’ll sleep well tonight, and tomorrow will be a big day. 

* * * * *

Today was a full-fledged work and camp day. It was some of the hardest work we've ever done. We broke up into teams and made some progress on various projects:

  • Digging posts for a new playground set

  • Garden work and refurbishing the greenhouse covering (no small task, the greenhouse frame is 13’ tall and 72’ long)

  • Building soffits and hat tracks (hope you are impressed with my technical language) on one of the new houses being constructed for a family.

  • Putting up a new shed at one of the completed houses

  • Making and pouring cements for a walkway

  • Constructing a rock climbing wall

Also, very importantly, it was the first day (for us) for the Summer Camp with the kids. We were very ambitious with our arts and crafts and games planned. We picked up some kids in the Big Red Bus and others showed up from what seemed to be from out of nowhere. The kids made lanyards and friendships bracelets, colored, played basketball and kickball, and a multitude of other “stuff” too numerous to mention.

Bonding over art projects. (Z.Gross, August 2015, La Plant)

Bonding over art projects. (Z.Gross, August 2015, La Plant)

At the end of our exhausting day, Zach announced that we would be rewarded with a trip to the mighty Missouri River. This brought rounds of hoops and hollers and applause. Wow, what a trip! Nearly 25 miles away through constant and abundant rolling prairie hills with scattered cows and horses but very, very few houses or people. Watching the grown men and women of our churches (and yeah, the youngsters too, but this is normal for them) run down to the water’s edge and plunge in was quite the sight - something we'll always remember - just pure joy and fun.


Field Notes from the Reservation: Well worn hands, open hearts

Alex Gross

Today’s unique Field Note is brought to you by Lucy Burr and Stephanie Stewart, both first-time volunteers from Essex and Farmington, Connecticut respectively. They are part of a mixed group of volunteers who have met for the first time here in South Dakota! Today, they reflect on what they've learned from their first few days with us here in La Plant.

It is night four and we nine volunteers agree:

  1. The dedication of the Simply Smiles founder and staff is amazing in its work ethic, cultural respect, resolve, patience, determination, kindness and inspiration.

  2. The work to be done in La Plant is hard, emotional, uplifting, and so much more.

  3. We came prepared to use our hands.

  4. We are surprised at the pain in our hearts.

  5. Our impatience urges us to give and do, which is faster than teaching.

  6. We are frustrated by OUR people’s political/administrative mistreatment.

  7. We enjoy celebrating this community’s dance contest winners at the annual powwow.

  8. The kids are eager to see the smiles greeting them at camp, ready to give them our full attention in a friendly place and spend a few hours on a summer day.

Helping hands in the garden! These young farmers helped to harvest garlic in the garden! (A.Gross, July 2015, La Plant)

Helping hands in the garden! These young farmers helped to harvest garlic in the garden! (A.Gross, July 2015, La Plant)


Field Notes from the Reservation: "We still have so much work to do"

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by volunteer Christy Wright, Director of Youth Ministries at Sudbury Methodist Church and is working this week with her Gales Ferry friends.

One of the most difficult mysteries of life to understand is the tension of celebration and sorrow, deep joy and great mourning. We admit that this world is beautiful, but we also acknowledge its brokenness. We are working toward a better life, but we still have so much work to do.

At the airport, Sam met us with the famous big red bus, bearing the love letters of previous volunteers inscribed across the ceiling. We pulled out of the parking lot, dropping the bus windows with the breeze pouring in. Even the air smelled different. It’s rich and organic, musky and heavy with life. With a folksy soundtrack emanating from the crackly bus speakers, we passed through fields of corn, soy, and sunflowers; giant cylindrical bales of hay dotted the landscape, and telephone poles punctuated the scenery like long, narrow picture frames. We could almost perceive the clouds’ movement as they shift shapes and drift lazily against the deep blue sky. The sun began to set behind us, and we breathed it all in. The push and pull of the wind bounced through one open window and out another, brushing through our hair as we began our new adventure.

Our first few days of work oriented us around the Reservation and the needs of families, kids, and the greater community. From a patchwork of stories to the history of the people, we observed and listened, realizing that we simply cannot understand the depth of their hearts. It continues to become more real as we interact with the kids during camp. The kids know that Simply Smiles is here for them; the organization’s presence over the past several years is evidence of their deep love. But we still have so much work to do.

Goofing around at camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Goofing around at camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

One day at camp this week, there was a small boy playing with Legos at one of our colorful picnic tables; he had built a well-fortified structure, housing two action figures: one was tan, the other was blue. I asked if I could join in, and his response made my heart drop. “Yes, you can play. We’re different colors,” he said as he handed me the tan soldier, “so we’re enemies.” 

It was such a simple response, but it raises so many questions. I’m positive this boy meant nothing by it, but it may evidence the very real racism that is still present across North America. Rather than being innately racist, his comment may have been just a statement of reality as he saw it. Its systemic, ingrained presence feels almost as undeniable as the blue of the sky.

We still have so much work to do.

This is not to say that progress isn’t being made. There are success stories and amazing landmarks that we reach everyday. Perhaps the best example of the love we are witness to is in the genuine laughter of the kids, sometimes at our expense. Many times today, water balloons were broken over our heads, but the momentary surprise and rush of freezing water is well worth the mischievous grins and raucous giggles.

We are working toward a better life.

This evening, we welcomed several local artisans to the community center to share their talents with us. From handmade bracelets and necklaces, to dream catchers and earrings, we found beauty in their creations and in the creators. To the soundtrack of local drummers, we danced under the South Dakota stars, lightning flashing before us, illuminating the clouds. Behind us, the fiery sunset produced perfect gradients of color. As the drums’ booming faded into the night, quiet conversations with members of the community continued as the bugs began to bite and the crickets sung their song into the darkness.

It’s moments like these that confirm our humanity, our reality. There is so much complex and intricate beauty in our world, and so many injustices that pierce our lives, but we must do our part. We are working toward a better life, but we still have so much work to do.


Field Notes from the Reservation: Settling in, tapping into talents

Alex Gross

This week's Field Note is brought to you by first-time Reservation volunteer Janet Huley. 

Last night (Sunday), Simply Smiles hosted a large group of families of all ages during its town-wide meal.  Teenaged boys and girls flocked to the recently-completed basketball court and divided into teams with mostly the younger interns and volunteers. 

Parents and grandparents sat down and were eagerly served delicious vegetable pasta with watermelon salad. Some of the ingredients were from the garden and greenhouse behind the big sign that serves as a windbreak and declares to the passing traffic, “La Plant Grows Its Own Food!” One boy asked me suspiciously what the red cubes were in his salad, so I asked him to taste them and tell me if they were a vegetable or a fruit. “Fruit!” he declared. I tried to get him or his brother to sit still for a sketch, but all I could manage were some features before they joined in the games with all the other kids. 

I got two sisters to sit for their portrait for longer and found that there were many critics their age who would take a look and assure the sister “It doesn’t look like you!” The older sister told me that I didn’t draw very well, so I responded that I was rusty and needed more practice; perhaps after drawing for awhile I would do better. She then offered to draw my portrait, and while drawing she kept saying she wasn’t a good drawer and she didn’t know how. She was very hard on herself. I kept telling her that she should draw what pleases her, and never mind what she thought it should look like - to draw it the way she saw it, and if she liked it, that was the most important thing. Her picture of me was wonderful, with many details like my earrings and clothes. I got to keep her picture of me and in turn, she asked for and I gave her my portraits of her, her sister, and her cousins. 

I talked with some of the parents and grandparents and some were outgoing and gregarious, while some were shy and reserved. Everyone lingered over the meal, and we discussed the new playground that I could see would really help. Sometimes the younger children are hesitant to join in on basketball with the older kids, and so they need a safe place to play where people can keep a watchful eye on them!

Monday began our workday. We had assignments, some of which were geared toward our interests and talents. I was working in designing and implementing a book club sign with several other very talented, creative people. We sketched it out and tried out different designs before finding a suitable piece of wood for the sign and the books we wanted to hang on it. We decided that each book title that the club read would be painted on a little piece of wood with the year, and placed on the sign. We found painting supplies and divided up the work, in addition to priming and painting signs for the vegetable garden. 

A new sign is created to celebrate Book Club milestones! Each book completed will be marked on the Book Club board! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

A new sign is created to celebrate Book Club milestones! Each book completed will be marked on the Book Club board! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Next to us, my husband, who is also volunteering this week, was working on building a tent for holding music camp. He was in his element working with a team of enthusiastic volunteers digging stakes and assembling this tent that will shade a group of kids on Tuesday. Elsewhere, a group was preparing the ground for the playground, and everyday we share the chores of everyday living.

Earlier we toured an almost-finished house, and a house in progress. Inspired by the future, we were told we were going to help unload two new houses - by hand! - to be delivered this week.

Summer camp brought back some of the kids we had seen on Sunday, and we were ready with many activities. I couldn’t get anyone to allow me to paint their face, but they did allow me to paint buffalo, suns, basketballs, Minions, and wolves howling at the moon on their hands and arms. In turn, I got a Minion on my hand and some blue faceprint, too. Kids tie-dyed bandanas, decorated treasure boxes, drew with chalk, played beanbags and made friendship bracelets. 

In the reading nook, I was privileged to have one read a whole book out loud to me. 


Field Notes from the Reservation: What a difference a month - and week - makes

Alex Gross

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.

Working together on the new archery range! (A.Gross, July 2015, La Plant)

Working together on the new archery range! (A.Gross, July 2015, La Plant)

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.

* * * * *

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.

I can’t make a resounding point, nor do I have answers, except to offer up what I hope can be of some solace to volunteers, my co-workers and other change-makers in similar and trying situations: We need to approach and practice all of our efforts and interactions with mindfulness and love. Love is ultimately at the core of our work to create, build, and encourage bright futures for the youth that we serve.

(E. Russell, La Plant, July 2015)

(E. Russell, La Plant, July 2015)


Field Notes from the Reservation: The weight of being present

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by Jackie Plavnicky, who is volunteering with our friends from Monroe and South Granby this week in La Plant. Note: The following post discusses subject matter that may be unsuitable or sensitive for younger audiences.


I have grown to really appreciate my friends and family, as these past couple days have been quite intense. I was hit hard when, on the first day we arrived, I learned that a 14-year-old girl from a nearby town -- a girl whom many kids in La Plant knew -- had killed herself. She was not too much younger than me, or any of the youth on this trip for that matter. There is such a sense of normalcy within the children on the Reservation when it comes to suicide in such a way that is way beyond horrifying. The people and children here do not know just how amazing, relevant, and important they are. I am sure everyone here would agree that this needs to change, and soon.

I apologize if the paragraph above makes life here sound horrible and tragic because that is only a fraction of what is happening during my experience with Simply Smiles. The people here are amazing, from the children on the Reservation to the friendly adults, and definitely the people I am traveling with. The children here may not have welcomed us with open arms, especially since we arrived just after they lost someone close to them, but they warmed up to us eventually. 

If they are given time, the children can be the most adorable, energetic and playful children I have ever had the chance to spend time with. One of the little girls, Joshlynn, was the first child to accept me with open arms (literally). She begged me for a piggyback ride, and our friendship grew from there. I found myself getting more and more attached to this amazing girl, as well as her friends Madison and Angel. Angel is also one of the sweetest kids I have met. On the first day, the group had the pleasure of meeting all the children, he came up to me and gave me a hug. After I got over the initial sense of surprise, I hugged the young boy back and got to know him through crafts and games. 

After spending so much time with these children, I know I am going to have a hard time leaving them. The bonds I have made with them have grown more than I thought possible prior to this trip. 

Piggyback rides are always a hit with the kids! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Piggyback rides are always a hit with the kids! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

This bond has also formed a weight on my shoulders (that I am more than happy to carry) to make sure these friends on the reservation get the help and support that they deserve. 

I want to see little Sunshine and her sister playing in the soon-to-be finished playground. I want to one day see Joshlynn innocently playing with her friends without the depressing feeling in the air. I want to see each and every child (and adult, of course) happy and content. I know that this is an incredibly hard task to take on -- one that may exceed my generation, unfortunately -- but I need to hold on to the hope that things will change. 

With the support that I will gather from those around me after this trip, I hope to better the conditions here, even if the change is minuscule.


Field Notes from the Reservation: Gradually understanding the place

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is brought to you by Lori Love, who is volunteering with our friends from South Granby and Monroe this week. Read her reflections from the first few days of her experience.

The air is cool at the start of our Monday morning here at the Simply Smiles Community Center. It is surprising how so many people can share a common space, and it is so quiet and peaceful in the early hours of the day. The sun wakes us and most are up and about around 6.

As I wander the grounds, I am mesmerized at the sight of someone on horseback across the way. With the mist rising and the sun beginning to peek through, I watch as the horse and rider slowly make their way to the crest of the hill and stop as if to survey the approaching day. I can’t help but imagine this scene as it would have been 200 years ago and I am sad that this world, their world has changed so much.

It is a great way to start the day with the Walk On program. I am so happy to see Anthony and his grandmother at the track and we all complete our daily mile with the help, of course, of the faithful pack of dogs. It is both fun and scary to watch this devoted pack of dogs escort the big red bus everywhere it goes! 

We are so hungry and happy to get a wonderful breakfast of eggs and potatoes and after the morning chores are ready to tackle our various projects around the center. There are groups working on the archery field and the greenhouse while others work on creating the whimsical pathway that will surround the upcoming playground. Several work on new garden stakes and others create a new buffalo for the herd in the front pasture. A separate group has headed down the road to continue with the finishing touches on the new house. The sun is warm, the birds are singing and everywhere you can hear the sounds of tools and laughter and community. It feels good to be here.

It is amazing how fast the morning slips away and todays lunch features quesadillas. With each main meal, we are finding a lovely salad with Hidden Valley ranch dressing, which we have learned is a town-wide favorite. It is awesome to know that we are enjoying radishes from this garden! It is also really fun to start to get to know all of the different folks here - from Sam and Dave to the interns to our neighbors in Connecticut, and, in doing so, deepening our relationships with our own crew. It is easy to find common ground and to make new friendships that you can already tell will last far beyond our week here.

Knock-out after the town-wide meal! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Knock-out after the town-wide meal! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Last night was our first town-wide meal. It was our first real interaction with most of the residents and they were very gracious and welcoming to us all. It was humbling to hear some of the stories of the struggles of these people and at the end of the evening, I was so hopeful that we would meet again later in this week and hopefully in my future. It felt right to serve the elders first and to be reminded that their path has been so different from mine. A strange feeling to be so happy yet so sad at the same time.

I experienced those same emotions this afternoon as the camp session started. Between the two groups from Connecticut, we had plenty of satisfying projects and games to play. Some children worked in the garden, others played basketball and some read or played games.

Coloring fun! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Coloring fun! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

I made a rainstick with Junior and as we worked together, he had plenty of questions for me about my life. I was deeply saddened by most of his questions as they were mostly based on questions regarding fear and hatred. I answered simply and truthfully and decided that, for today, I would not ask too many questions in return because I simply wanted to hear his thoughts.

Again I was struck by the thought that if this beautiful child had been in one of our Connecticut schools, the system would have been all over it with worry about his emotional state and his situation at home. But who here would care? The Simply Smiles crew. That's who.

We had been warned that some of the children would test us - by acting out or not sharing their true names or seeing how much they could get away with. I found that, with the exception of a few, most of the children were pleased to see us and clamored for attention and piggy back rides. I rode on the big red bus with Alex when she drove the children home and wondered what kind of life went on behind the walls of the homes in the community. I felt sad as I watched two young boys meandering down the road towards nothing, while another group of children who had not come to camp played in an old beat up van.

Back at the center we are relaxing tonight - some residents are here for horseshoes and I got a wonderful lesson in the proper technique from Arlen - he was so nice, and encouraging and I tossed a few good ones! 

Fun with the kids in the garden! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Fun with the kids in the garden! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

I wandered out to the spiders web in the playground - following the sounds of lively conversation from some of the teens. I feel super lucky at how accepted they all make me feel. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset and shared interesting conversation with Anthony. I feel like the teens are a huge influence on him and will help to give him reasons to grow and learn. 

As the evening winds down, folks are scattered about reading, playing cards, chatting about the day. I am looking forward to tomorrow and although we have only been here since Saturday evening, it feels like we have been here for a much longer time. I feel very grateful.


Field Notes from the Reservation: Hard work, rewarding smiles

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note recapping the Wapping Community Church's first few days in La Plant is brought to you by youth volunteers Mike Fialkoff and Aly Dansereau and chaperone Nancy Bassilakis.

Fun with face paint at camp!

Fun with face paint at camp!

Monday was a sweltering summer day in the plains of South Dakota, a far cry from the scenery of South Windsor, CT. A mix of high school students and adults have worked diligently to contribute to the efforts and philosophy of Simply Smiles.

Shocked by the immense difference between the lifestyles of the residents of the Reservation and our group, we worked intently on improving the outlook of all of those involved in the Simply Smiles experience. Our day today was one of the hardest and dirtiest that we have ever experienced, but the Simply Smiles ideals have kept us persevering for the sake of those who we are here for. 

By interacting with the energetic children, we have been able to realize that they are no different than children back home. They are shy when you first meet them, but eventually warm up to you with a game of Ball-tag or signing your name in their notebook.

In just a few hours, friendly relationships have been formed and we look forward to spending more time with the kids.

Though our week has just begun, we have already been able to acknowledge the impact that we have had on the community and imagine the improvements that can only further help. This trip thus far has proven to be one of the most rewarding experiences and will continue to be throughout and after our time here at Simply Smiles. 

-Aly and Mike


On Tuesday, we continued to work on projects around the community center in the morning and at the summer camp in the afternoon. Although the official work project time is less than four hours, we have been able to accomplish so much. Our group has divided and conquered over the past few days, tackling projects that most of us have never done before. Between installing light fixtures and house finishing, to the laborious and heavy concrete mixing, we have broken our backs (figuratively) several times over. Our kids are giving their all to this community, both physically and emotionally. 

Planning for play:  Our friends from Wapping work with Emma and Sam to prepare the ground and border for an upcoming playground project!

Planning for play: Our friends from Wapping work with Emma and Sam to prepare the ground and border for an upcoming playground project!

We end each day with a community circle. Our 23 youth and 6 advisors talked about what we have seen and experienced here on the Reservation. Bryan (the founder of Simply Smiles) had spoken at our church and told us about the level of poverty on the Reservation. But even that did not prepare us for what we have seen. Although the prairie is vast and beautiful, the remoteness of this place is startling. Compared to Connecticut, there is nowhere to go, nothing to do. No jobs, no recreation center, no retirement home, no preschool program, no grocery store, no doctor, no vet for all of the stray dogs (which the kids have quickly become attached to), no anything. 

Last night, we sat in a circle and processed our thoughts thus far, sharing our surprises, our joys, and our wishes for the people of LaPlant. They talked about how cars and campers and motorcycles just drive by on their way to their destination and never realize the struggles of the people who live in La Plant. They talked about the remoteness of the people who live here without cars with a sense of shock. How do they survive without a grocery store nearby?

And they talked about the joy on the children’s faces when you play basketball, or build LEGOs, or let them paint your face. I sat in the circle listening to our compassionate youth with tears in my eyes. Tears of sorrow for the challenges that face the children of La Plant, and tears of joy that our children see the challenges and know that they are making a difference. 

To everyone who supported our mission to La Plant, South Dakota, not only have you made a positive impact on the people of La Plant through sending our youth out here to build houses and playgrounds, but you have changed all of us in so many ways as well. The depth of compassion and love that we are developing will be something that we will carry with us of the rest of our lives. Thank you.

- Nancy

Field Notes from the Reservation: Raising walls, making friends

Alex Gross

This mid-week Field Note is a collective post by the student and faculty volunteers from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT (which also happens to be Gaby's alma mater! )

We arrived on Saturday, June 20th and, as soon as we arrived, the fun started. This week is dedicated to health promotion with topics that including nutrition, dental care, heart health, and diabetes. Some of the students and faculty are from different concentrations in the health professions, and we have some individuals from the social work department.

We didn’t know what to expect coming onto the Reservation, but we all came in with an open mind and positive thoughts for the week ahead.  

On our first full day, we went on a wonderful tour of the Community Center and the town of La Plant, and we started to learn about the culture and the Lakota. At a first glance, the homes looked like a safe place to live and to raise a family. When Sam started to tell us stories, the group started to realize just how severe the living conditions were for some families, both physically and emotionally. It was challenging to hear about the way some children lived and to hear about the school system. It was disheartening to hear that education is not valued, and that children had few hopes or ambition before Simply Smiles. These anecdotes moved us to be a change in the community and to make the most out of the week despite the obstacles that we knew that we would face.  

In the afternoon, we started to work on some of our projects that we would be working on continuously throughout the week. It was a great way to dive head on into the week. In the evening, we helped to set up and prepare for the town wide dinner. We met some of the community members and shared a meal with them. Many of the people in town were more than willing to have us sit at their table and they welcomed conversation.

Our days have started off with a morning mile and, then, moved onto work projects after a delicious breakfast. Our group was divided into subgroups to work on various projects. Some of the work projects have included cementing the whimsical path to the future playground site, putting up the walls on Elvis and Renessa’s new home (which we finished! Yay!), working on the garden, and cutting and painting pieces of plywood for a new buffalo art installation. 

(Almost) raising the roof!:  The Sacred Heart group works with our friends Kee and Elvis to get the exterior supports of the house complete!

(Almost) raising the roof!: The Sacred Heart group works with our friends Kee and Elvis to get the exterior supports of the house complete!

Although the work is challenging, we know that the work we are doing is going to benefit the individuals in LaPlant.  

In the afternoon, we had camp and got to meet some of the amazing children. At first, the children were quiet and didn’t really interact with us. Many of us have had experience with children and, during our evening conversation of "highs and lows," the unresponsiveness of the children was a universal "low." 

The kids have to get re-accustomed to new people every week, which must be really hard. They get close to someone in a short amount of time and then those volunteers leave, and are replaced with others.  However, that next day there was something different about the children. They were more open with us and asked us to do things with them like craft or play basketball.  

Basketball remains the go-to activity with the kids! (E. Russell, La Plant, June 2015)

Basketball remains the go-to activity with the kids! (E. Russell, La Plant, June 2015)

A moment in the powwow grounds!  (E. Russell, La Plant, June 2015)

A moment in the powwow grounds! (E. Russell, La Plant, June 2015)

We did some drawing activities, bracelet-making, made some mosaic kites, played kickball, knockout, basketball, jump roped, and played some board games.

Hearing their laughs and seeing their smiles made our day better.

On Tuesday night, we had bingo night at the Community Center. It was great to be able to see the town, young and old alike, enjoying the game, as well as the weather.  

On Wednesday, Barbara, a La Plant resident, was kind enough to tell us about what her life was like. It was difficult to hear some of the things she was saying, especially when she became so emotional talking about her experience with the boarding schools. We had no idea that some teachers at her school were actually Lakota themselves. Hearing a first-hand account of what it is like to live here on the Reservation was not only eye-opening but also extremely powerful.

It's a conversation that we won't easily forget. 


Field Notes from the Reservation: Perception versus reality of the Plains

Alex Gross

Today, our Field Note is brought to you by volunteers Delaney, Sofia, Lauren, and Gaby from the Palmer Trinity School in Miami, Florida, who are spending the week in La Plant with us!

Spending a week on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation is nothing like we imagined it would be - we pictured empty plains of grass, filled with roaming buffalo and tipis scattered throughout the landscape. These may be typical images from the movies but, in reality, it is far from it.

While spending time on the Reservation these past couple of days, we realized that our imaginations were heavily influend by media and that we didn’t take time to think about how life on the Reservation has drastically changed with time. This Simply Smiles trip has introduced us to the real world of the Lakota, and these stereotypical images has been erased.

Fun building at camp!  (Z.Gross, June 2015, La Plant, S.D.)

Fun building at camp! (Z.Gross, June 2015, La Plant, S.D.)

We've realized that the people in La Plant are some of the most genuine, caring people that we've ever met, and the fact that our country attempted to eradicate them makes us ashamed.

Some of the families on the Reservation may be broken, but to see the children’s smiles warms our hearts. Their resilience amazes us.  We have connected with the children during camp, carried them on our backs, and played endless games. We spent an afternoon in a cooking class where we made conversation with some of the elders and heard their stories of how our government shamed them for speaking in their native tongue.

This Simply Smiles trip, especially interacting and talking to the people here in La Plant, has opened our eyes to how dangerous our preconceived notions can be and, at the same time, just how wrong they really are. 

Many hands:  The Palmer Trinity School crew helped to install six wall panels on a new home for a great family in La Plant!

Many hands: The Palmer Trinity School crew helped to install six wall panels on a new home for a great family in La Plant!


Field Notes from the Reservation: Gaining confidence, building dreams

Zach Gross

Sunday morning on the Cheyenne River Reservation consisted of a tour of La Plant that helped our group gain perspective and knowledge about the town. The afternoon included time on some work projects -- moving wall panels for a new home over to the build site and improvements to the town's community center. This introduction to the week ahead made us thirsty for more. Sunday concluded with a delicious town-wide dinner, and a confidence-building softball game that helped us to interact with the community and kids.

Read More

Field Notes from the Reservation: Processing the last day of the volunteer week

Alex Gross

The final Field Note for the week from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point volunteer group is brought to you by Vanessa Vincent. 

Our last and most exciting day at Simply Smiles: It was a cold and windy morning but members of the community and the Simply Smiles crew still made the effort to walk side-by-side for the morning mile.

While conversing with community members through out the week, I was honored to be able to hear their stories and their experiences.

On Friday, I was so proud to see the children perform at a concert at their school, in which they sang Lakota songs, played the flute, and hoop danced with Lakota storyteller, musician and dancer Kevin Locke. At the end of the program, our crew was asked to dance the friendship dance, or round dance, with the children.  

The group learns how to hoop dance from the kids at a special presentation at the school! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

The group learns how to hoop dance from the kids at a special presentation at the school! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

Vanessa teaches the kids a few new tunes during camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

Vanessa teaches the kids a few new tunes during camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

I feel sad to leave the friends that I have made during my experience with Simply Smiles, especially after working alongside them and talking with the people here. The kids at camp were excited about the games that we provided, and I was so happy that some of them enjoyed playing the piano and singing songs! I was able to teach some of the girls a song on the piano by writing down the notes. The next day one of the girls came to camp and had already learned how to play the song I had taught them! I was thrilled! 

I will take my experience at Simply Smiles back home with me and share what I have learned. I feel I have a broader perception about LaPlant and its community, and I will remember the memories our UWSP crew have made here with Simply Smiles.