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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 Tag: CRST

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

Alex Gross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


voices of lakota youth: "rides on the enemy without fear"

Zach Gross

In honor of the Native Nations March in Washington, D.C. today, we wanted to share with you the perspective of Kayson, a Lakota teenager living on the Cheyenne River Reservation whom we have been fortunate to know since we began our partnership on the Reservation. 

Kayson spent the entire fall and winter of 2016 on the Standing Rock Reservation, serving as a water protector and resisting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In those months, he experienced the joy of different indigenous nations from across the globe coming together juxtaposed with the brutality of people driven by greed and destruction.

During a recent trip to the Reservation in late February, we asked Kayson to share his thoughts on what living at camp was like, how it changed him, and what's next for him as a Lakota youth.

In a ceremony later this year, Kayson will be honored and given a Lakota name, which, fittingly, translates to "Rides on the Enemy Without Fear."

the feeling of camp -

it was a feeling of welcoming, and the people were so nice to each other.

i was there when the camp was still young.

i was a boy then, and now i'm a man.

i learned the ways of my religion and that's Lakota.

i rode horses there. i rode with the riders i call brothers now.

we are all in this fight together. we have to fight for what's right. 

i've met so many different tribes. it was the best feeling i had in a long time -

like the air was filled with joy

and the people would enjoy the ways of many different tribes.

there were round dances and singing contests and volleyball and basketball.

i was happy for my people because the joy they had was brought too on that day of oct. 27th**:

it was a hard day that i was riding with my brothers to fight the black snake.

i watched the cops hurting my people.

I am a protector of Mother Earth. It’s my calling to do so.

they showed no fear against my people, and i was a little scared.

they used concussion grenades against us, had weapons.

we had no weapons, we were unarmed.

that did not matter to them.

i was there.

i watched the people getting hurt by the police.

then my brother told us to go with him, so we did the buffalo run and we herded those buffalo.

we heard the screams of joy from our people, we gave them hope and they did not give up.

they fought hard that day.

i'm proud to be Lakota.

i'm proud of my people that fought with us that day. 

my next fight is with the kxl pipeline.

that'll be in bridger, SD.

i've been trained for this, so now I'm ready for that fight

and i wanna bring as many people to fight with us.

we stood with standing rock. now it's time to stand with cheyenne river.

that's what we gotta do.

i am a protector of mother earth. it's my calling to do so.

i'll have my brothers next to me fighting this pipeline.

i thank you guys for the support and hopefully we will see you there.

We are all in this fight together. We have to fight for what’s right.

**You can read more about the events of October 27, 2016 and the subsequent detainment of water protectors here and here.

STAY INFORMED. Learn more about the Native Nations Rise March and its aims here and here.  •  You can follow the march and subsequent actions by following the hashtags #NativeNationsRise, #NativeNationsMarch, #IndigenousRising, #NoDAPL and #WaterIsLife on social media. •  Read the latest news about the Dakota Access Pipeline here

TAKE ACTION. Learn how your members of Congress have voted on issues that affect Native Americans -- and encourage them to support indigenous rights with upcoming legislation -- here.

VOLUNTEER WITH SIMPLY SMILES. You can meet the amazing Lakota youth that we support on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. Click on the button below to learn more and get started!


Header photo: © 2016, Rob Wilson Photography

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. 

Naugatuck on the Reservation: Thursday, May 15, 2014

Timothy Nurnberger

Tomorrow will be the last day for me working on the reservation. I have had ample time to reflect on my experience and what I will take from working with the resilient people of the Lakota Nation. Resilient is an interesting choice of words for me to use. As a helping professional, I have dedicated my life to working with people from different backgrounds and stories, but I have never worked with people that have a history quite like the Lakota.

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Farmington Valley Association on the Reservation: May 3-10, 2014

Timothy Nurnberger

There are twenty two of us from the Farmington Valley Association representing a variety of churches in the Avon-Granby-Bristol-Terryville (Connecticut) area. Anyone who has not seen Simply Smiles in action in person must come to La Plant, South Dakota. The staff are amazing people with hearts of gold. And the people of La Plant are a blessing; simply being with the people warms your soul. The needs here are huge. The needs are ongoing. The needs are hard. And yet there is hope…

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Sisters for Peace on the Reservation 2013: Final Reflection

Timothy Nurnberger

Early morning Simply Smiles coffee brewing. Laps around the track. The red outhouse and the red bus. Pow wow posts. Mandatory water breaks. Spin art. Rough Rez dogs. Piggyback rides and zombie games. Soapy dish-washing in the breeze. Exhausted sleeping mat-inflating. The sun sinking across the endless South Dakota sky. Smiles.

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My first week on the Reservation

Timothy Nurnberger

Last Saturday, Bryan and I flew west to start our week on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, my first opportunity to visit La Plant. I have heard endless stories, seen thousands of pictures, and listened to the Fleet Foxes song that plays over the beautiful Reservation Volunteer Season video countless times now, yet I still had no idea what my week on the Rez would bring.

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Witness: Final Reflections from the Reservation, Summer 2012

Timothy Nurnberger

This summer, we spent almost three months working, living, eating, crying, and laughing in this community – a community that, even though it is physically located in the domestic United States, is a sovereign third-world country inhabited by a people systematically annihilated since the spread of Manifest Destiny.

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August Update from the Reservation

Timothy Nurnberger

Hi all! We are nearing the end of an absolutely tremendous summer on the Reservation, but we still have two more groups coming who are going to do some serious hard work. I'm writing to you from Fran and Ed Graves (Kristen's parents)'s lovely Green Bay home, where the Reservation crew is taking a few days off from rebuilding the La Plant community center, leading summer camps for 40 kids aged 2-14, driving our big red bus, doing home construction and repair, and serving community meals to over 85 people. I apologize for not updating as often as I should have - in a story that I will elaborate on in a bit, we haven't had Internet or very much electricity in the community center since the ceiling collapsed. So, here I am, attempting to summarize a truly incredible summer in a short blog post, which I hope will convey just a bit of the inspiring work our volunteers have done these past eight weeks. It's hard to even think back to the beginning of the summer, because it seems like forever ago - and, to put it in perspective, eight weeks flies here. In the time we've been on the Reservation, we've hosted 24 community meals, worked on three huge home construction projects, played for 40 days of summer camp, and worked with 6 AWESOME groups of volunteers. It it so humbling to think about all of the time, effort, and sacrifice that has happened on the part of our volunteers, and the hard work and fun times that have been had.

So, the community center. While the roof didn't ACTUALLY collapse (don't worry, things aren't THAT dramatic around here), we did help it a bit to come down. During the re-roofing that Kristen wrote about in her last blog post, we realized that the ceiling and walls of the community center in La Plant weren't living up to the standard of excellence that the roof was conveying. So, our volunteers bravely donned masks, gloves, and goggles to begin a deconstruction project (a fun change from the usual construction projects). We tore down the ceiling and

walls, removed all of the gross mousey insulation, and the community center is now down to its bare stud bones. We have big plans for its renovation, including beautiful wood paneling and Josh (our photographer and BFF)'s portraits of the kids on the Reservation. It's very exciting living on a construction site, but Gaby might say differently, as she was without a kitchen for the better part of last week. Now, our kitchen is all plugged in, we have full electrical and Internet capabilities, and we await the next group with high hopes for the building. We're also making great progress with our other projects, winterizing and renovating trailer homes. Commando-crawling under a trailer was not something I expected to do with my college degree, nor was it something I thought I would enjoy. However, if anyone needs someone to drag heavy plastic sheeting and spread it neatly in a 10'x100' patch of dirt with 2' of crawling space, you've got your girl - I loved it! And the groups did too, overcoming fears and really ratcheting up their awesomeness in the process.Another really cool and exciting update about the summer is the overall community feeling here. Last summer, one of the struggles that the Simply Smiles staff faced was the town-wide meal. Getting people to attend was a struggle, but the staff really believed that perseverance was the way to go, and so they pushed through to provide meals all summer. This year, we decided to triple our efforts, increasing the meals from one a week to THREE meals a week, and this seems to have been the key. On our last community meal on Friday, we served stuffed fry bread (a Lakota favorite) and cherry wojapi (MY favorite). We had over 100 people from town attend, eat, talk and catch up with each other under the pole barn. They've played huge town-wide games of baseball, met volunteers from all over the country (and the world!), and ate some really delicious food prepared by the unstoppable Gaby.

We've also had the honor this summer of being the audience for traditional Lakota drumming. Some of our friends on the Reservation have worked hard to preserve the musical culture of the Lakota, and we are lucky enough to be invited to hear it. We were also so, so lucky to, when the old drum was taken from La Plant, to receive enough donations in just a few hours to buy a brand new drum for the community. It is made of a hollowed out cottonwood tree and tanned buffalo hide and sounds amazing - the booming sound, we're told, is because the hair is still intact on the inside of the buffalo skin. Christiana painted the town's name on the surface of the drum and a medicine wheel, completed by the outline of Bryan's hand and the Simply Smiles colors. What an honor to be remembered in this way! Truly humbling.

Next week, our Mixed Group is arriving in La Plant for a week of hard work and strong friendships. Afterward, we look forward to the group from Woodmont Congregational Church to help us wrap up the summer. It's going to be an awesome few weeks; I can't wait.

Until next time,



The #bigredbus Arrives in La Plant

Timothy Nurnberger

Hello, loyal bloggers! Today I'm writing to you from the Rapid City airport, waiting on my flight back to Connecticut. Unfortunately, today I head back to CT for two weeks to take care of some general office work before going back to La Plant and the Cheyenne River Sioux Valley Reservation. We arrived in La Plant on Monday afternoon and it has been a heck of a few days. The first thing we did upon arrival was look at the area. As this was my first time on the Reservation, I needed a pretty in-depth tour. The landscape of La Plant is pretty spectacular: rolling fields as far as the eye can see, dotted by the occasional house, barn, and herd of cattle. As soon as we crossed the Missouri River, which is the dividing line between the Reservation and South Dakota proper, we stopped for a quick dip in the river and a discussion of what the week would have in store for us. Over an hour of driving later, we arrived at the community center in La Plant to begin our tremendous summer.

We arrived and were quickly greeted by some of our friends. When we went up to town to get a key for our water spigot, about 15 kids ran out of their houses to meet us. With permission, they climbed into the back of the truck to come back to the community center with us - a huge change in their relationship with us since last summer, when we struggled for trust with the children at camp. They laughed and climbed into the truck, all yelling with excitement, as we drove back to the center with some strong helping hands.

The first major task at hand was to unload the bus, and this was not a small job. It took the five of us (Bryan, Josh, Haley, Gaby, and Christiana) plus about 15 helpful kids several hours to unload all of the awesome donations. The kids, of course, took periodic breaks to play with the water squirters (to the great dismay of Chip and Maddie... and Josh) and to ask, "What's in this box? What's in here?" They're really pumped for all of the summer camp stuff, and all of the clothing and blanket donations we put in storage to be given out at Christmas and other exciting times of the year.

The kids absolutely LOVE the bus as well. As soon as they came to visit us, they were jumping on it, playing with the door, and running up and down the aisles. Unfortunately, that curious nature quickly led them to the horn, which honked ceaselessly for about an hour. To bring them home that night, Bryan explained the rules of the bus and gave the kids their first ride on the #bigredbus. They all listened to the rules, and kept asking when camp was going to start so that they could be picked up again. Looks like Operation Big Red Bus was a success!



Yesterday was spent readying the community center for our first set of volunteers - East Haddam Congregational Church, who arrive on Saturday. We cleaned the building from top to bottom, emptied out an old storage room that was stacked floor-to-ceiling with old boxes and mouse nests, and mowed and weed whacked the lawn. We also went to measure for the first construction project of the summer: roofing! An inventory was made of all of our food and supplies and today, while I sit in airports, Bryan, Josh, Christiana, and Gaby will be on a huge shopping trip for food, construction materials, and, of course, dog food. We also picked up our other truck and trailer to haul everything that gets bought today back to the Reservation.

As you can see, we've been busy over here! We're really excited to get started with the first round of volunteers; we have a lot of really awesome stuff in store. Building projects, summer camps, THREE community meals a week plus a movie night - things are all falling into place for the summer of the #bigredbus.

Have a great week, everyone! I'm looking forward to getting back to the Reservation the first week of July. Until then, keep looking for updates on the first two groups and be sure to look for pictures on our Facebook page!

Your loyal blogger,