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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: Cheyenne River Reservation

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


Big News! Simply Smiles takes a huge step on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation

Zach Gross

In order to expand the work and impact of Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ has leased Simply Smiles just over 8 acres of their land for a term of 99 years!

On this property (adjacent to the Sam D. Horse Community Center property in La Plant, South Dakota on the Reservation, where Simply Smiles currently runs its programming), we will build additional infrastructure that will work in conjunction with the Community Center property.

This expansion will increase our efforts, grow our partnerships, and allow us to work each day to create the smiles that lead to the brightest possible future for the children of Cheyenne River.

A bright future:  Outlined in orange is the 8.04-acre parcel of land, leased to Simply Smiles by the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ on June 1, 2018. To the right, you can see the La Plant Community Center.

A bright future: Outlined in orange is the 8.04-acre parcel of land, leased to Simply Smiles by the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ on June 1, 2018. To the right, you can see the La Plant Community Center.

Simply Smiles has put down our roots in La Plant, South Dakota. This is the town that welcomed us onto the Reservation almost ten years ago. Now, as we solidify our commitment to the Reservation and to Indian Country at large, we also solidify our commitment and our gratitude to the town of La Plant.

As you can imagine, entering into this lease was a lengthy and at times complicated process. We couldn't have done it without an amazing team that worked together for over two years toward a shared vision for Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

A special thank you to:

  • The Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ, Toni Buffalo, and Louie Blue Coat
  • The South Dakota Conference of the United Church of Christ, Rev. Gordon Rankin, and Attorney Bob Frieberg
  • Shipman & Goodwin, Attorney Sarah Westby, and Attorney Dame Catalan
  • Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton and Attorney David Smith
  • The people of La Plant
  • The Congregational Church members who live in La Plant and helped Simply Smiles to connect with, and develop a relationship with, the Dakota Association.
  • Simply Smiles donors and supporters!
Lease signing:  (Left to right): Simply Smiles Garden and Healthy Living Program Manager  Marcella Gilbert ; Simply Smiles Program Manager  Zach Gross ; Simply Smiles President and Founder  Bryan Nurnberger ; Transitional Associate Conference Minister for the Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota Conferences  Gordon Rankin ; Simply Smiles Board Member  Peter Bayers ; and South Dakota Conference Minister Emeritus  David Felton

Lease signing: (Left to right): Simply Smiles Garden and Healthy Living Program Manager Marcella Gilbert; Simply Smiles Program Manager Zach Gross; Simply Smiles President and Founder Bryan Nurnberger; Transitional Associate Conference Minister for the Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota Conferences Gordon Rankin; Simply Smiles Board Member Peter Bayers; and South Dakota Conference Minister Emeritus David Felton

Now, to address a few questions:

This is great news! When will Simply Smiles start developing the land?

In the coming years, Simply Smiles will incrementally add the infrastructure we need to the land. We’ll add utility connections and driveways first, then buildings for storage, housing, program implementation, and more! In the immediate future, you may see a Simply Smiles staff member on the land parcel putting in corner markers and/or a sign.

What about the Sam D. Horse Community Center?

Simply Smiles will continue to use the Community Center as the center of all Simply Smiles does on the Reservation. Because of the generosity of Simply Smiles supporters, volunteers, and our partners on the Reservation, we have invested a lot of energy and funding into make the community center in La Plant what it is today. What we build on the new land will be an expansion of the community center infrastructure we've already built.

You are leasing the land from a church group. Is Simply Smiles still a non-religious organization?

Yes. Simply Smiles is not officially connected to any one religion, faith, or belief system. We want to be able to work with anyone who shares our values and our vision. Remaining independent in this way is a central tenant to Simply Smiles programing being open, available, and feeling comfortable for everyone.

Why did Simply Smiles lease the land and not buy it outright?

We chose to lease the land and not buy it out of respect for the Lakota owners of the land. We wanted to make sure that in all of our actions that Simply Smiles is supporting and giving, not taking anything from the Lakota people. By leasing the property, the land stays in the ownership of Lakota people.

How long is the lease?

Simply Smiles is leasing the land from the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ for a term of 99 years. The lease began on June 1, 2018. Over these years, we will use the land to further the vision and mission of Simply Smiles.

Where is the leased property exactly?

The leased property is 8.04 acres and it lies between the Sam D. Horse Community Center land and Main St. The eastern border is the old Iowa Ave, adjacent to the community center. Access is along the western border on Main St, just south of the Congregational Church entrance.

Is everything with the lease solid legally? Land ownership can be a tricky thing on the Reservation...

Absolutely! The land is deeded/fee/non-trust land and a full year of effort was put into making sure the property was cleanly and legally owned by the Dakota Association and that they had the right to lease the land. The land was platted/surveyed, title checks were run, title insurance was secured, and multiple law firms supported the effort. We then developed a lease that protected both parties. All the legal ducks are neatly in a row making sure the land holding is stable for the next 99 years.

Will there be any Lakota ceremonies performed to bless the land?

We would love your input and help to make sure that before we break ground on the first building that we have honored the traditions and practices for a situation like this.

On June 3, 2018, the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ held a church service and blessing at the Virgin Creek (La Plant) Congregational Church.

On June 3, 2018, the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ held a church service and blessing at the Virgin Creek (La Plant) Congregational Church.

Deepening partnerships:  Bryan Nurnberger (left), Simply Smiles President and Founder and Toni Buffalo (right), Administrator of the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ sign the 99-year lease agreement, allowing Simply Smiles to continue and expand its programming on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota.

Deepening partnerships: Bryan Nurnberger (left), Simply Smiles President and Founder and Toni Buffalo (right), Administrator of the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ sign the 99-year lease agreement, allowing Simply Smiles to continue and expand its programming on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota.


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

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 the Reservation: Giving voice to those little moments

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is from Jessi Wilcox, one of our amazing, incredibly hardworking summer interns, a dedicated volunteer, and a recent college graduate from the University of New Hampshire. Jessi has spent a significant part of her summer with us on the Reservation. Her insights reflect her commitment to the children of La Plant and her thoughtful outlook on how she plans to bring her experience home.

People say it’s the little things in life that count, which can sound a little cliche, but the more life experience I gain, the more I realize how much truth this statement holds. I am overwhelmed with how to put into words what this summer has taught me, and how much my time as an intern on the Reservation has meant. I am flooded by memories of “little” moments that have each played a role in making this summer so meaningful. There are so many stories and emotions I could share, yet I still find myself trying to find a way to connect these moments to a broader audience. How can I make each of these little things that mean so much to me, mean something to my friends and family when I get home? How can I relay my experiences so that it will reach them, or inspire them to get involved?

As a recent college graduate, most of my conversations with people have revolved around some sort of question about my next steps in life. Leading up to graduation, my friends were applying for jobs to start in the summer and getting themselves ready for their next step into a career. I knew my next step had to be getting more involved with Simply Smiles. I was excited to finally have a summer where I could be on the Reservation for an extended period of time and truly immerse myself in the culture, community, and absorb the experience.

Jessi, always a leader of piggy back rides and a friendly face at camp!

Jessi, always a leader of piggy back rides and a friendly face at camp!

This excitement stemmed from previous years of being a volunteer with Simply Smiles. I first came out to La Plant for a week during the summer of 2013 with a group from home. After such an amazing time, I knew I had to come back, so the following summer, I did! This time, I participated in the Simply Smiles Win A Trip contest. I worked hard to fundraise so that I could not only contribute to the organization that I felt so strongly connected to but also so I could revisit with old friends and lend a helping hand once more. I was fortunate enough to be one of the winners of the contest and had the opportunity to join the Fairfield University volunteer group for a week in August 2014. Returning to the Rez with a large group of strangers was an awesome experience. It was exciting to see the enthusiasm brought by a big group of college students; there were new ideas and lots of energy to carry us through the week.

My involvement this summer as an intern has taught me a great deal. It can sometimes feel overwhelming getting new volunteers every week, but what I have taken from this is to appreciate the new perspectives that they bring, as well as the new energy and interest they possess. It has been amazing to watch the dynamic and relationships built among volunteer groups, staff, interns, community members, and kids. The conversations at town-wide meals, the games and tickles at camp, and the teamwork that goes on at the work sites proves to be a learning experience for everyone involved.

I have also learned a lot about myself and reflected about who I want to be, and where I want to go from here. Something that got me thinking about this was a brief and silly moment with a 4-year-old boy at camp. When he turned to me with a mouthful of spaghetti and a giant grin, blurting out, “Hey! What’s the big idea?!” I couldn't help but smirk at what had just come out of his mouth. Of course, I replied with, “To tickle you!” which was followed with laughter and big smiles.

But, when you actually do think about it, what is the big idea?

This so called “big idea” revolves around kindness, genuine interactions, real, honest conversations, open-mindedness to new perspectives, and sharing stories and moments with all kinds of people. These are the things that make a difference, no matter where we go in life. It is in these moments that I've formed new friendships and shared memorable experiences. Each town-wide meal, day at camp, trip to the Missouri River, mornings at the worksites, the powwow, and wopila have given me new stories to tell when I return home.

Through these stories, I hope to teach others about Lakota culture and to get involved. These stories have the ability to give a voice to the people of La Plant and strike an emotional chord and, hopefully, action in the lives of family and friends back home.

As a return to the East Coast, I am reminded that it is the little things that will have a big impact. I have learned that getting a smile out of a child, or a hug out of an elder may not seem like a big deal, but it is these things that move us forward down a positive path. 

Thank you, Simply Smiles, for capturing the essence of this and continuing to impress me with your love and sincerity. 

Field Notes from the Reservation: First Church of Stamford, take two!

Alex Gross

We often say one of the most challenging elements of volunteering at our project sites is how to best articulate all of the things that happen over the course of day and to share these occurrences with friends and loved ones back home. While we do follow a schedule and have plans for the week, there are a number of events - small or large - that can make the volunteer experience even more memorable. In this Field Note, our friends from the First Congregational Church of Stamford, Connecticut try their hand at describing parts or reflections from their days, with snippets from numerous volunteer perspectives! We're happy to have the Stamford crew back on the Reservation this week - their second volunteer experience with us!

No rest for the weary! It's right to work on Sunday for our Stamford friends, including pellet shed construction ! (La Plant, August 2016)

No rest for the weary! It's right to work on Sunday for our Stamford friends, including pellet shed construction ! (La Plant, August 2016)

"Yesterday was the 'lazy Sunday' here in La Plant, although the definition of lazy out here must be different from what we are used to because, by the end of the day, I think we were all feeling exhausted and ready for a good night's rest. We were privileged to be given an amazing tour by Sam, who so eloquently spoke about the reality of life in this town and on the Reservation. It is something hard to put into words and yet she did it so well, I know that I wished that I could have recorded her and played it back so that when asked what it is like here I could have her words inspire everyone like they did me. She said that it is 'tangible hopelessness' and yet come time for the town wide dinner at the end of the day I felt as though it had shifted in just a year's time to become a tangible hope. More people attended the community dinner than I had seen attend any single event last year. Children grabbed our hands and pulled us to the playground. I can remember last year beginning the process of building the playground. Digging the holes that would be foundation for the swingset and building the rock wall. It’s amazing how it has become the center for the children's play and an icebreaker for people of all ages. Here's to more play to come." ­ - Emma Jelliffe

Pillow-making fun at camp! (La Plant, August 2016)

Pillow-making fun at camp! (La Plant, August 2016)

"Positivity encourages progress. Something as small as watching my cousin push a child on a swing are drastic changes for the Lakota people. Last year, it would have taken days for them to be comfortable to be around us in such a way. To see them so open to the new people this year is truly a sight to behold. Anyone from the trip last year can attest to this. But my favorite part of the day was watching my grandmother. Yes, the leader of the group and one of the older members, years do not apply to her. I watched her conversate with the good Lakota people of La Plant whether in their cars or on a bench she asked about their lives and how things have changed. She followed the children to the playground, or 'park' as they love to call it, and pushed them on swings. She even climbed to the top of the climbing wall and watched the youth of La Plant, the sun go down. And there sitting beside her I noticed an amazing thing. A boy we had previously met before who bluntly called people names and swore and cursed at my grandmother was now beside her laughing and holding her hand. What a great change this place has hope! What great change, this place has promise. What great change this place has a future." ­ - Shanika Bello

Learning about horses - and taking a spin! - at camp on Monday! (La Plant, August 2016)

Learning about horses - and taking a spin! - at camp on Monday! (La Plant, August 2016)

"Coffee tastes good this morning with the wind blowing across the extraordinary land. Sleep came easily last night after a busy day painting the ceilings in the two new houses being built this summer. The town wide dinner was so well attended ­ lots of children enjoying the playground constructed last summer. How much fun to watch the teenage boys and girls playing a competitive game of basketball ­ the girls are amazing. I am honored to be here again this year. ­  

"Monday was a productive day of flooring, painting, molding, stucco, taping. Camp was fantastic: 37 pillows made, drawing, friendship bracelets, basketball, playground, music camp. A friend brought his horses for the kids to ride. Evening brought heat lightning to light up the massive sky, followed by thunder and rain and cooler night temps. A great day!" - ­ Leslie Loop

Intense puzzle piecing and getting crafty at camp!

Intense puzzle piecing and getting crafty at camp!

"Good afternoon in camp. Quality time with master puzzle maker and budding artist!"­ - Bob Loop

"As we stood outside doing the dishes from last night's dinner we were privileged to witness the most spectacular sunsets, absolutely jaw dropping. Life has a way of restoring your soul, of giving you what you need if you simply stay open to it! Another highlight of the day was riding a horse!!" -­ John Jelliffe

Field Notes from the Reservation: Matching history lessons to a place, needing to do more

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by Dennis Cullinane, a teacher at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and leader of the student group that is volunteering with us this week on the Reservation. 

When I embarked upon my journey west to La Plant, South Dakota with Simply Smiles, I was under the impression that I understood what current Native culture was like, and the tragic history that came to shape it. To be sure, some of my understandings were accurate, and in fact, as I traveled here and during my first days in La Plant, I read The Last Stand, a book about Native and U.S. government relations leading up to the Battle of the Little Big Horn. I had also taught and interacted with Native students back at Deerfield Academy, had studied the public health issues of Native Americans, and growing up as a Democrat in Massachusetts, I was sure I was well armed to understand the people I would be helping.

As the days in La Plant have unfolded though, I’ve begun to understand better how incredibly complicated, and dare say, sinister, are the history and current issues facing the inhabitants of the Cheyenne River Reservation. And perhaps most importantly, I now have a tremendously ingrained sense of how scheming, poverty, neglect, and ignorance can trap a people, year after year, generation after generation, in a cycle of despair and surrender.

Dennis, right, works with Jeremy from La Plant to build the foundation of a wood pellet shed at the new homes.

Dennis, right, works with Jeremy from La Plant to build the foundation of a wood pellet shed at the new homes.

Where I came from, unemployment is lower than virtually any country in the Western world, public and health facilities are equally world-class, and a greater educational experience than the generation before is not just a hope, but a certainty. Little kids grow up wanting to be doctors, lawyers, astronauts, marine biologists, or president of the United States. Even African Americans, a cohort that has suffered tremendously at the hands of American society, now can tell their children that they, too, can be president. Unfortunately, the reality I left either nominally exists, or does not exist at all on the Reservation. 

To the great credit of the people who have lived here for generations, and despite all that they as a living historical lineage have endured, they are warm, friendly, thoughtful, profoundly philosophical, and deeply proud of their heritage.

Indeed, I have been incredibly impressed with the indefatigability of their spirits in their daily lives, but I cannot help but feel a need to do more.

Working side-by-side: Volunteer Katie works with Shane of La Plant to frame in a bathroom ceiling on a new home.

Working side-by-side: Volunteer Katie works with Shane of La Plant to frame in a bathroom ceiling on a new home.

Not more in the simple sense of giving money, or goods, or et cetera, but to help kick start the next generation so that they can exit the vicious cycle in which they unknowingly find themselves. Indeed, lending them the lens to see another, possible, happier and more constructive future can be as simple as letting them know somebody else cares about them, wants them to succeed, and in some instances, expects more of them. This knowledge is exactly what will send them - especially the children - careening out of cycle in a wonderfully chaotic tour of life that most of us, their neighbors, take for granted every day of our lives.

A fire was smoldering in me when I committed to the week here at Simply Smiles, smack dab in the middle of South Dakota. That smoldering ember is now burning brightly. I now see the face of my own happy, eager, well-educated, well-traveled and wonderful 14-year-old son in the eyes of every kid I see here, and I shudder at the thought of him giving up on his future and being sucked into a cycle of generational despair.

The kids here need a lens, or a higher hill to stand upon, or whatever metaphor you like, so that they can see further and do more with their lives. I now understand life here, but sadly, only a little bit better.

Field Notes from the Reservation: Returning volunteers reflect on second visit

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by our friends from Palmer Trinity School of Miami, Florida. This group of high school students are joined for teachers and faculty from the school, as well as individuals from the Massachusetts-based group, Sisters for Peace. Below, students from the Palmer Trinity School make some mid-week reflections about their time here on the Reservation:

All smiles at the new home sites, as we near completion of the exterior facades!

All smiles at the new home sites, as we near completion of the exterior facades!

This is Palmer Trinity’s second time in La Plant, and we are extremely excited to be back!

We have been working on Ford and Kee’s houses and have made significant progress throughout the week. All of us have been working hard and putting in our best efforts to complete these homes for the people of the Lakota community. 

In addition to all the wonderful work we have done, the relationships we have built with the other volunteers, interns, staff, and especially the community have given us more than we could ever imagine. The sense of family, pride, and love that Simply Smiles has created within the walls of the Sam D. Horse Community Center has not only brought this community together but has also produced a unique bond among us as students.  

Superhero Day at camp, complete with mighty t-shirts and capes!

Superhero Day at camp, complete with mighty t-shirts and capes!

Among the PTS group, there are four students who are returning for their second volunteer experience. They had such vivid and wonderful memories of their conversations with Barbara, playing basketball with Kayson, and reading with Madison on the playground spiderweb. Upon return Sofia, Delaney, Miguel, and Lauren were apprehensive about how they would be received by the children and elders of La Plant. On the first day of camp, Jayce, Lulu, and Stayce all remembered the four returnees by name. In that moment, Lauren, Sofia and Delaney were brought to tears as they realized that the impact the kids had on them was just as big as the influence the four volunteers had on the kids. 

When we arrived on the Reservation we heard stories of how the Lakota children originally had no aspirations in life. This week, Hope - and many other students from our group - spoke with the children and were happy to hear them make references to graduating high school, attending college, and even aspiring for careers after they finish their schooling.

Sergio, center, leads a garden tour and taste test of the garden!

Sergio, center, leads a garden tour and taste test of the garden!

During camp, kids have expressed desires to become anything from professional basketball players to superheroes. Sergio, for example, has demonstrated an interest in pursuing a career in agriculture. These very ambitions are testaments to the positive impact Simply Smiles has had and continues to make on this community. 

Throughout our trip we have befriended the children, heard the horrific stories of what the elders went through during the“Boarding School Era, and felt accomplished after finishing the framing, soffits, and mixing of cement to build houses for the deserving families.

Every experience is meant to change you, and this experience is most definitely changing us. 

Field Notes from the Reservation: Consistency in the face of poverty and pain

Alex Gross

The most recent Field Note is the second reflection by our friends from Plymouth Congregational Church of Lawrence, Kansas. As a returning volunteer group, they discuss the importance of consistency and presence in combatting larger issues on the Reservation in their latest post. Take a read:

No single week’s worth of work can provide a lasting antidote to the forces of poverty, racism and broken relationships that have plagued the Cheyenne River Reservation for centuries. But, there is hope; there is measurable and visible change taking place, and Simply Smiles is here to stay. 

Now, Plymouth Youth Group of Lawrence, Kansas is a part of this consistent presence in the Cheyenne River community of La Plant. 

Plymouth Leader Eleanor (second from left) speaks with the housing recipients - Kee, Ford, and Elvis - at the housing site of Ford (second from right).

Plymouth Leader Eleanor (second from left) speaks with the housing recipients - Kee, Ford, and Elvis - at the housing site of Ford (second from right).

“One group, working one week, can’t have all the impact it takes to effect lasting change,” says Cameron Buzhardt, a youth participant on this year’s trip. “But multiple groups coming year after year to take part in this can effect change that extends beyond just the Community Center [in town].”

Cameron, along with her fellow Plymouth Youth volunteers Cole Phillips, Abby Jackson and Andrew Anderson, came to South Dakota for similar reasons. 

For Cole: “I wanted to experience what it was like to be here, to be a part of building a house for a family who needs it.”

For Andrew: “I knew work needed to be done here, and I wanted to help out.”

For Abby, who made the trip north from Kansas to the Reservation in the summer of 2015 as well; “I wanted to see the progress that had been made in a year, to see what kind of impact we possibly made from being here last year. 

“After last year I felt I had a duty to continue to help out,” says Abby. “I felt like it was truly a calling.”

The reality of experiencing the systemic dysfunction that has existed since the creation of the Reservation system can be challenging, especially when one sees the effects on individuals with the least control over their present circumstances — the children whom Plymouth Youth have gotten to know through Simply Smiles’ day camp.

Personal piñata making at camp!

Personal piñata making at camp!

After speaking with a teenage girl at camp, Abby recounted, “I asked her whether or not the community was changing, if the positive interactions and relationships have spread to the rest of the town, and she said it was hard to say. There are still a lot of problems, but here [at the Community Center], here is a safe space for the kids.”

Behavioral issues at camp — particularly incidents of bullying between select children — do not emerge from a vacuum. They are often the result of the pain that runs deep from years of systematic and cultural disintegration. 

This in no way excuses or condones bullying — Simply Smiles has a zero tolerance policy for such behavior — but witnessing the legacy of history is an important thing for Plymouth Youth to experience and grapple with firsthand.

In talking with La Plant residents, Abby learned that change, no matter how incremental, was still huge and, “happening. The stability provided in Simply Smiles can create safety, security and positive interactions for the kids to hopefully mimic. And I do believe it can and will spread over time.”

When asked if she’d think about coming back and volunteering with Simply Smiles again, Abby replied, “Absolutely.” A recent high school graduate, she went on to say, “I want to come back as an intern next summer.”

The work with the children is perhaps the most important project of any volunteer group that comes to La Plant and Simply Smiles. The children are the foundation and the future; reminding the kids on the Reservation of their importance—of the value of their hopes and their dreams, of their right to a place in this world—is vital. And the hundreds of Simply Smiles volunteers who travel to the Reservation each summer can provide the consistent presence necessary to enact change.

Taking great heights to build strong, safe, secure homes:  Thanks to our amazing volunteers and interns who worked alongside Bryan to put the roof on Ford's new home!

Taking great heights to build strong, safe, secure homes: Thanks to our amazing volunteers and interns who worked alongside Bryan to put the roof on Ford's new home!

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 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: "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: 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.

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