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Simply Smiles provides bright futures for children, families, and communities. The organization partners with populations in need to create physical and emotional environments where suffering is alleviated and from which local leaders can emerge.


Simply Smiles blog

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

Filtering by Category: Staff Notes

Staff Notes: A different path, a renewed passion

Zach Gross

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.

A little help from friends:  Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator Sam Steinmetz and her high school basketball coach Al Ciarlo, who has volunteered on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, help their young friend balance on newly constructed stilts at Simply Smiles Summer Camp.

A little help from friends: Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator Sam Steinmetz and her high school basketball coach Al Ciarlo, who has volunteered on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, help their young friend balance on newly constructed stilts at Simply Smiles Summer Camp.

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.

Thank you,


Teamwork makes the dreamwork:  Sam and her former college basketball teammates from Saint Michael's College in Vermont worked with teens on the Reservation to host a basketball tournament.

Teamwork makes the dreamwork: Sam and her former college basketball teammates from Saint Michael's College in Vermont worked with teens on the Reservation to host a basketball tournament.

Growing moments: 2016 garden season on the Reservation

Alex Gross

by Alexandra Gross, Reservation garden manager

the harvest!

Over the course of this summer, I chipped away at Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer is a scientist, enthobotanist, professor and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She’s a gifted writer and philosopher who gives profound insight into the interconnectedness of all living creatures. One passage from her work continues to resonate with me: “A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence. And its power goes beyond the garden gate - once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself.”

If you have a job that is dependent on Mother Nature, you learn to be humble. Good farmers and food growers acknowledge that they are merely facilitators and caretakers for bigger, natural forces. Sure, we can plant the seeds and hope to reap a harvest and a small profit, but much of it is out of our control. 

What is in our control: How we choose to show respect, reverence and patience for the human and biotic community that surround and are a part of the garden.

The easiest part of my job, especially coming from a commercial growing background, is showing the quantitative value of the garden. I’m proud to say that, during the 2016 season, we produced more than 700 pounds of food. That’s a lot of vegetables! This growth in production should be celebrated, especially watching the La Plant Grow Its Own Food project transform from a small, tomato-growing contest to a quarter-acre micro farm because of the many, generous hands of the Simply Smiles community.

But, how do I capture the most rewarding part, or the intangible benefits? I’ve seen a shift in some of the adults, whom I first met when I was a volunteer in 2013 when they were shy and slightly standoffish to now, when they approach the garden with great interest and pride. I’ve had the opportunity to mentor and work alongside many inquisitive, spirited kids who get truly psyched about working in the garden, selling the produce at their weekly farmstands, or leading garden tours, gaining authority and confidence with each passing week. 

When I arrived in La Plant to expand the garden project in April 2014, the original plan was simple: Build a garden in a central location, and people will come. Well, turns out, it was and remains not that simple.

This is not to say that “going with the flow” became the adopted mantra - far from it! By just being in the garden space regularly, people - adults and youth alike - have shown interest in and embrace the garden in their own unique and meaningful ways. Pace and patience are two concepts that I’ve come to appreciate because people are showing up, they are eating the food, and they are participating.

La Plant Grows Its Own Food    farmstand series 2016!

Seeds are taking root in La Plant:


People in town attended the nine farmstands that we held throughout the course of summer and early fall. Individuals asked how to use vegetables, and neighbors shared recipes.

  • A young girl saved up some money to buy a cookbook at the farmstand. She wanted to test out some new recipes for her family.
  • In late summer, after a townwide meal, I watched a young father walk around the garden with his toddler son on his shoulders, pointing out different vegetables and flowers.
  • A man quietly stopped by the Community Center to learn more about a seed packet that he was given. He planned to plant the watermelon in his garden, but wanted to know if the fruit would grow in time for a family reunion in late summer.
  • A grandmother harvested young carrots with her granddaughter, both with wide smiles on their faces.
  • A young couple invited Zach and me to see their new garden in their backyard. We casually swapped tips and laughs, as you would with close friends.
  • During garden class, a girl said, rather casually, that the garden makes her feel safe…and less bored. 
  • One of the youth garden assistants from the Reservation planted a garden around the perimeter of his house, providing weekly updates on the the height of his growing sunflower and asking when the seeds would be ready to harvest, eat, and save for the following season.

The garden is flourishing because presence - physically being there - is the root of the Simply Smiles philosophy. You can’t run a garden from a desk in Connecticut, and I’ve been fortunate that I have spent a significant part of my three years with the organization living and working on the Reservation.

Every time I latch the garden gate, I leave the space feeling immensely hopeful. The garden has morphed into something more than the physical space of raised beds, a greenhouse, and a pumpkin patch. I’ve witnessed, quite visibly that kids and adults alike are seeing and planning for a future.

It's with the support and generosity of members of the Simply Smiles community that we have a garden and greenhouse, that these food growing initiatives can provide an electricity, warmth, and make growing local food on the Reservation a point of pride, celebration, and serve as a visible and exciting symbol of hope and change. Thank you!


The greenhouse!

Field Notes From Mexico: More Than Just "Deworming"

Alex Gross

This latest edition of Field Notes comes from Simply Smiles President & Founder, Bryan Nurnberger. Bryan is currently visiting Simply Smiles program locations in Oaxaca, Mexico where he helped to staff a medical clinic.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, 2,504 people just received treatment for parasitic infection from Simply Smiles. At the same time, we distributed over 12 tons of food staples, began construction on 14 more latrines and announced the opportunity for children to be educated from kindergarten through the college level at our our new “Casa Hogar Simply Smiles Children’s Home”.

Efforts to treat populations for parasitic infection, or “deworming” programs as they are often called, are one of the most impactful and most common actions taken by governments and NGOs in impoverished areas. While deworming efforts are extremely common around the world, they are almost always done in a manner that is not in keeping with the principles upon which Simply Smiles bases our work. For example, in the village where our Director of Oaxacan Operations, Gabriela Chavez Hernandez, grew up, strangers would show up every six months, pass out pills to treat for parasites and leave. This “treatment only” approach is the global norm because it’s easy to execute and the relatively low cost of the medicine makes indefinite treatment possible - but it is clearly not a solution to the problem.

Treatment only perpetuates a system of dependency and is a disrespectful way to support individuals in need.


If the reader feels conflicted or unsure about the definitive nature of this statement consider this scenario:  If your own child continuously suffered with an ailment that left him malnourished, in pain, and at risk of death from blocked intestines would you rather A) provide temporary relief twice a year forever or B) address the root cause of the ailment and cure your child permanently? Treatment only approaches dictate that answer A is what parents want for their children. Simply Smiles, and every parent with a choice, chooses answer B - a permanent and respectful cure. 

Simply Smiles President & Founder, Bryan Nurnberger with one of the children he encountered on his first trip to the Oaxacan villages. At the time, Rigoberto was suffering from severe parasitic infection. Pictured here at Thursday's clinic (5/26/16) Rigoberto is healthy and attending one of the schools Simply Smiles built in the region.

Simply Smiles President & Founder, Bryan Nurnberger with one of the children he encountered on his first trip to the Oaxacan villages. At the time, Rigoberto was suffering from severe parasitic infection. Pictured here at Thursday's clinic (5/26/16) Rigoberto is healthy and attending one of the schools Simply Smiles built in the region.

Since 2009, Simply Smiles has been working in an extremely remote mountainous area of Oaxaca, Mexico. Here we encountered poverty that was nothing less than stunning. The globalization of the coffee market over the past decades left the population of Zapotec Indians, who have lived here for centuries, in a state of near starvation. During our first visit to the region, the ubiquitous distended and hardened bellies made it immediately clear that there was also an extremely high rate of parasitic infection. While our initial response to this humanitarian emergency was swift, Simply Smiles waited until 2013 to address what we soon learned was specifically parasitic round worm infection. Why? So that we could do it right. Because truly eradicating parasitic infection necessitates complete trust from, and partnership with, the population in need. And that takes time and effort to build. So for four years we built trust by focusing on other needs in the region including distributing over 2.5 million meals and building two schools. It was not until 2013 that we were in a position to begin our eradication efforts. 

(To provide a little more insight into why we waited four years to begin the eradication program, when an infected individual is treated for parasites the medicine kills the worms and they are passed out of the body through what is often quite extreme vomiting and diarrhea. Imagine if someone you didn’t fully trust gave you a pill that had this effect on you. Treating for parasites before we had earned the complete trust of the population would have surely prevented us from being welcome in the region and therefore prevented us from providing the support the population needs.)


I have just arrived at our administrative office in Mexico after helping our team to host a medical clinic that treated 2,504 individuals for round worm infection. Treatment was the focus of this week’s work, but it is just one part of the Simply Smiles holistic plan to eradicate parasitic infection in southern Oaxaca, Mexico:

Partnership & Trust: When there is a line of 2,500+ people, you need a lot of help to manage a clinic of this size. My wife, Kristen, and I were the only Americans staffing the event. Our partnership with the local population means that we can help the people to help themselves. Villagers managed the flow of people through the clinic, translated Zapotec to Spanish at the registration table, helped to prepare and dispense the medicine, and distributed the 12 tons of food staples that are given at every clinic we host. 

Treatment: Twice a year Simply Smiles hosts a medical clinic where the population is treated for parasitic infection with the highest quality name-brand medication. 

Education: Because Simply Smiles built two schools in the region we are able to fold educational programs about how to prevent parasitic infection in the curricula. We’ve distributed thousands of informational pamphlets and hung innumerable signs. A doctor and/or nurse sees every single individual as they come through the clinics to explain what the treatment is for and why it is important. 

Prevention: One contracts round worm from contact with feces, either through lack of hand washing or as a result of open defecation. Each person receives a large bag of soap when they pass through the clinic along with instruction on how to effectively wash your hands. In an area without plumbing, construction of basic pit latrines is an economical and extremely effective way to provide sanitary facilities. To receive a latrine from Simply Smiles, a family signs out shovels and picks and then digs a 3 meter deep hole. Once completed, Simply Smiles sends our local construction workers to build a brick latrine on top of the hole. These latrines have an estimated lifespan of over 40 years. This week, we began construction of 14 additional latrines. 

Scientifically Proven Results: Simply Smiles has partnered with American and Mexican universities and pharmaceutical companies to formulate and execute our unique holistic program to eradicate parasitic infection. At the end of each calendar year, medical professionals including an infectious disease specialist, travel to Oaxaca and test stool samples from 10% of the region’s children. In 2013 the results showed a 48% infection rate. By 2015, that infection rate had dropped to 20%. Our next scientific testing will take place in November of 2016. We are hopeful that we will see an infection rate of less than 10%.

Simply Smiles, of course, will continue our efforts until eradication has been achieved and sustained. The children, families and communities in our care deserve nothing less.


For more information and photos, please visit our More Than Just Deworming webpage.

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,


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 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: 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)