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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.

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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: Field Notes

Staff Notes: A different path, a renewed passion

Zach Gross

Our most recent post comes from Samantha Steinmetz, the Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator. After six years as a Simply Smiles staff member and 10 years after her first volunteer experience, Sam will begin her studies as a master's student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration this fall. Read more about how Sam's experience and commitment to Simply Smiles influenced to her decision to enter this inspiring academic and social endeavor.


Almost ten years ago, I went on my very first volunteer trip with Simply Smiles to Oaxaca, Mexico. The day after graduating high school, I jumped on a plane to Oaxaca with my friends (including fellow Simply Smiles staffer Zach!). I quickly fell in love with the kids at the children’s home where we stayed, as well as with the families in the community where we were building homes. Most of all, I felt incredibly empowered as an 18 year old with broken Spanish. At the very least, I could make a child smile; at the very least, I could crack a joke and share stories with the family whose home we completed.

I returned to Oaxaca throughout my summers in college as a Simply Smiles intern, and I was hired soon after graduation to work for Simply Smiles full time — my actual dream job.

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

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

For the last six years, I have split my time among Mexico, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, and Connecticut. Few things have made me happier than spending time in these communities, with people whom I now consider friends and family. As I grew up with Simply Smiles, I have been incredibly lucky to watch our kids on the Rez and in Oaxaca grow too, and to be a consistent part of their lives.

It has also been incredibly humbling to work with and get to know hundreds of compassionate volunteers each year as the Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator, sharing my love for Oaxaca and the Reservation with others, and witnessing the incredible changes that the Simply Smiles community has inspired in the lives of indigenous youth and families.

Throughout my years, I have seen our kids grow to be confident in themselves and in their dreams for the future, knowing that they are capable and worthy of achieving those dreams. These intangible achievements, I believe, are our greatest.

For anyone who has visited the Reservation, you know that living there, working there, can often be challenging—the isolation and the climate of the South Dakota plains, for one. But more challenging is bearing witness to the current reality of the Reservation, a reality our government manufactured generations ago, a reality that is forgotten about and continuously ignored today.

I have witnessed the product of U.S. government policies that have shaped the current culture of youth suicide in South Dakota. I have had to learn how to respond when children I love scream at me, and cry to me, sharing their thoughts of self harm and suicide. This is, of course, the hardest part of my job. Though we work to combat this problem by working together to design and implement amazing programs—hundreds of days of summer camp, field trips to Colorado and the Crazy Horse monument, internship opportunities for teenagers, basketball clinics and tournaments, college tours, trips to Connecticut and New York City— there is always the underlying worry that these efforts will not be enough to save lives. That the despair of the Reservation will prove to be too much for another child we have come to know.

Recently, a child with whom I had become very close took her own life at the age of 12. She was one of the young girls I befriended during my first extended stay on the Reservation throughout the whole month of February, the winter after Zach and I graduated college. After having spent the majority of our time with Simply Smiles in Oaxaca, we were less familiar with the Rez. I was not confident that I could even open one of the storage unit doors, let alone design and host a youth program in a place so different from Mexico. We ran after school camp inside the Community Center, with freezing weather outside, no running water, and one pick-up truck. I wondered how, after one volunteer trip to sunny Oaxaca, we had gotten ourselves in this situation. Through all these moments of self-doubt, cold days, long evenings, being thoroughly tested by these tough yet silly kids, and using every bit of patience and blind love, I formed a particular bond with this one bright, smart 8-year-old girl. I got to know her better over the next few years, before she ultimately moved away to another town on the Reservation. We kept in touch via Facebook occasionally over the years. And then, one day last spring, I learned she had died by suicide.

Too many children on Native American reservations grow up seeing suicide as an easy, accessible escape from their daily lives. This situation is the norm on reservations, where the ancestors of these kids were forced to live and never leave; where their relatives were killed at the hands of the government; where their living grandparents were forced into boarding schools, told that being Lakota was a sin, and forced to forget their language and culture; where there is a current culture of apathy in response to it all. It is here, on these reservations, that the federal government needs to make amends for the problems that it engineered, and to protect the lives of the children who are facing this reality. These communities need to be supported on an institutional level—to be given the opportunity to start to heal and self-determine their own future.

My work on the ground with Simply Smiles has inspired me to focus my energy toward addressing the mental health crisis on the Cheyenne River Reservation, and in Indian Country at large. Though I continue to love my work as a volunteer coordinator, the youth suicide epidemic on reservations throughout our country is one problem that needs more attention from the federal government and demands appropriate policies and support.

As such, I have decided to go to graduate school to learn more about mental health issues on both a clinical and policy level in order to work to develop mental health programs and facilities in reservation communities. With the foundation of my experience with Simply Smiles, these aspirations can be made into reality with a further education. I am happy to announce that I have been accepted to the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. Beginning this fall, this program will allow me to focus on youth and adolescent mental health policy, as well as gain clinical experience.

As much as it will hurt to not be directly working with Simply Smiles starting this August, working on mental health policy for reservation communities is where I believe I need to focus my attention for now, so that I can increase the scope of my impact. I have always believed, and still fully believe, in the Simply Smiles model that invests in the power of creating a smile that can build self worth and confidence and that is the first step to a brighter future. A big part of me would like to continue this work to focus on our kids on the Reservation, in Oaxaca, and their dreams. But I also want to tackle the issue from a different angle. I believe that systemic change requires both on-the-ground activists and well-informed policy makers working together, and earning my Master’s degree from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration will hopefully be my first step in pushing for change at a higher level.

I will be on the Reservation and in Mexico as much as possible throughout these next few years, sharing my new experiences, my goals, and dreams, with all of our kids. Simply Smiles will of course continue to fight every day for our kids and the brighter futures that they deserve.

Thank you to everyone in the Simply Smiles community who has supported me and our work. And a special thanks to our friends in Oaxaca and on the Reservation who inspire me each day. Simply Smiles will always be part of who I am and where I go.

Thank you,

Sam

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

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


Field Notes from Oaxaca: What we've come to expect from Simply Smiles

Alexandra Gross

Our recent Field Note from Oaxaca is penned by volunteers extraordinaire Eleanor McCormick and Stefan Schütz. Eleanor, the associate pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence, KS, and her husband, Stefan, have led multiple youth and adult groups from their congregation at our project site on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota. They recently had the opportunity to visit the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico, working alongside children's home director, Gaby Chavez Hernandez, and the Mexico staff and, of course, having fun with the kids! Below are some of their insights.


By Eleanor McCormick and Stefan Schütz

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Eleanor & Stefan with the children! (Photos by Stefan Schütz)

Eleanor & Stefan with the children! (Photos by Stefan Schütz)

Just a short drive south from the Oaxaca Airport in Mexico is the Simply Smiles Home for Children. We entered the large metal gate to the joyful greetings of children—all eager for hugs and introductions. The colorful walls, chalk drawings on the paving stones, marbles in the sand, and bubbles in the air told us a full week was ahead!

Wednesday night Ana Lucia (6), with the patience of Doña Lulu and Doña Sylvia, staff at the children's home, helped in the kitchen cutting tomatoes—just as Sergio does on the Reservation. Similar to Simply Smiles' programs on the Reservation, where community is created under a pavilion at long picnic benches, we found a feeling of community in the courtyard at Simply Smiles Mexico: food is served family style, and relationships are nourished over delicious meals and laughter.

Each morning the children left for school. Meanwhile, the dedicated and loving staff of Simply Smiles worked hard preparing homemade lunch, mopping dormitories, sweeping outdoor play spaces, attending to dishes, and beginning laundry for 20 busy children all under the age of 18! Alma and Charlie created, sewed, and glued magnificent costumes for the upcoming Revolutionary Day parade, and their full crafting table was met with the biggest smiles as the children returned home in the afternoon. 

Gaby Chavez Hernandez has hired and inspires a team that looks out for the best interests of the children. This includes Rosa (6), who lacks the ability to speak, walk, or eat solid food. It also includes Jennifer (15) and Rosibel (17), who sit with Gaby and Paola at the kitchen most evenings to work on their high school level exams in human anatomy or English. 

On Saturday night, we celebrated Maricela (5) and Jenny's (9) birthdays! We all enjoyed a dance party with DJ Felipe (5), chocolate cake, fun hats, and lots of very loud singing!

These are the small things that make the Simply Smiles Home for Children different. A trip into the city for a cake: worth it. An extra hour in the evening on homework: worth it. The opportunity to make a child feel affirmed, known, and loved—this is what Simply Smiles is all about. Simply Smiles is making a long-term commitment to each of these children, and the level of dedication is palpable. 

Eleanor & Stefan join the birthday festivities at our home for children!

Eleanor & Stefan join the birthday festivities at our home for children!

Alma, center, helps the children with their homework at the Simply Smiles Home for Children. (Photo by Stefan Schütz)

Alma, center, helps the children with their homework at the Simply Smiles Home for Children. (Photo by Stefan Schütz)

As we asked more questions and participated more fully in the day-to-day schedule at Casa Hogar, we learned just how many opportunities are assured to these children. Through connections with local doctors and a location close to a children's hospital, access to affordable and excellent health care is provided to each and every child. A safe, clean, dynamic, and loving space has been built and is being maintained and expanded, so that these children can excel in school and have a brighter future. Educational success is supported by Doña Mari's fresh breakfast. Staff member Alma speaks with each child's teacher every day, attends school meetings, and tutors during afternoon homework hours.

For many years, we have been watching the Simply Smiles Home for Children transform lives from afar. We are so grateful for this opportunity to finally meet the children and see the sanctuary that has been built by volunteers before us in Oaxaca. Our experience only confirmed what we already knew to be true: Simply Smiles provides bright futures for children—one smile at a time!

(Photo by Geer Teng)

(Photo by Geer Teng)

Because of the quality of the volunteer experience that Simply Smiles consistently provides, we have returned to the Reservation year after year, leading youth and adult service trips. We plan to return to Simply Smiles Mexico for the very same reason. We were well prepared by the Simply Smiles staff, who were with us every step of the way. We lived and worked alongside staff like Gaby - who are patient, well informed, and working to create lasting change. No busy work ever... and this is not volunteer tourism.

This is, as we have come to expect from Simply Smiles, a profound, impactful and safe experience. 

We will miss the smiles that filled our past week. We look forward to seeing them again soon. Thank you to the staff of Simply Smiles for this remarkable volunteer experience. We cannot imagine a better way of spending our vacation.


Smiling faces at the Simply Smiles Home for Children! (Photo by Geer Teng)

Smiling faces at the Simply Smiles Home for Children! (Photo by Geer Teng)


Field Notes from the Reservation: Raising the roof with our volunteers from Lawrence, Kansas

Zach Gross

Below is an update from our youth volunteers from the Plymouth UCC in Lawrence, Kansas, who have returned to volunteer with us on the Cheyenne River Reservation for their third consecutive year!


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

High school students from the Plymouth Youth Group from Lawrence, Kansas joined the staff and interns at Simply Smiles in welcoming about 30 children from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation at the start of a week-long summer camp in La Plant, South Dakota.

"[The children at camp] were much more willing to be involved and much more open,” said Calvin DeWitt, who is in his third year of volunteering in La Plant. In previous years, the volunteers needed to work much harder to form relationships with the kids, showing the strides made by Simply Smiles on the Reservation.

On Tuesday, four days into our adventure in La Plant, South Dakota, we raised the roof -- literally.

With Simply Smiles’ founder, Bryan, spearheading the effort, Plymouth volunteers raised three roof trusses on the new volunteer bunkhouse. One group of volunteers moved a roof truss to the top edge of the framed walls and handed the truss to nine members on scaffolding inside the new structure. It was an amazing team effort, just as much of this week has been.

Cooler weather moved in on Tuesday, and while we felt a few sprinkles, the rain held off and lower temperatures made everything easier. In the mix was: a two hour basketball game featuring volunteer Alex Stark vs. the teenage women of La Plant, Liam McKinney and his first power tool, Stefan Schuetz and his team installing OSB sheathing, and Rylee Roberts documenting our trials and successes on film. As Jacob Schepp noted during Tuesday night reflection - Tuesday was a five star day!

Volunteers Siona and Ruby work on painting the inside of a newly-renovated home of a community member.

Volunteers Siona and Ruby work on painting the inside of a newly-renovated home of a community member.

Epic bubble making at summer camp!

Epic bubble making at summer camp!


Thursday, June 8, 2017

We couldn’t feel our toes! But we stayed in the cold water of the Missouri River nonetheless. Why? Because 30+ Lakota youth wanted to splash, swim, jump from the dock, take underwater photography with a Go-Pro, and use their imaginations and new-found friendships to fill an amazing afternoon of camp! On the way home, a six year old fell asleep on volunteer Lourdes’ shoulder and the three Jaiden’s (just one from Plymouth) bonded as they shared a seat on the big red bus.

The river day was a great reward after a full morning of hard work. One team, led by chaperone Mindy Downs, delivered new flooring to a resident’s home, and completed all of their painting projects except the kitchen! A few of our volunteers, including Siona, Rollin, Jaiden, Olivia and Grace, came back to the Community Center with a bit more paint on their bodies and hair than on the walls. Another team hoisted 16 roof trusses into place for the largest roof in Simply Smiles La Plant history, on a new volunteer bunk house! Thanks to Margaret’s awesome communication skills, Peter’s height, and the muscle of Maleena, Schepp, Gabe and many others, it was an amazing illustration of teamwork!

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Thursday we enjoyed a special snack of dirt! Several campers participated in making chocolate pudding that we topped with Oreos and gummy worms supporting this week’s camp theme of “Bug, Insect & Spiders Oh My!” Did we mention we got to have Dairy Queen Blizzards on Wednesday evening? When asked if they would return for a second or third year volunteers Olive and Rose chimed in with an enthusiastic, “Yes! And we already have a list of friends to invite with us!”

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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. 


Fields Notes from Oaxaca: When the place dictates the pace, process

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is from our friend Emma Russell, an educator and an invaluable member of the Simply Smiles community. She has spent many summers on our project on the Cheyenne River Reservation and began her volunteer experience with us at our Mexico initiatives in their early years. Below, she gives an update on our Children's Home in Oaxaca, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles, where she is currently helping to get the children ready for the upcoming school year!


Something that has breached my thoughts quite a bit since being here in Oaxaca is the idea of individual past experiences and how much they inform the way we experience new things. You, the reader, have a multitude of your own experiences that have shaped your current perceptions, and whether you are cognizant of it or not, what you take away from my thoughts here—assumptions you may or may not make—will be formed inevitably by those that have formed you. The way I chose to construct and share my experiences so far in Oaxaca are informed greatly by where and what I have come from. The cycle continues. These reasons are why I am always so overwhelmed by the task of writing posts for Simply Smiles. Painting a picture that includes so many different narratives and reaches so many varied minds is a heavy task. Yet, here I am, writing my second ever reflection on the subject, trying, again, to respectfully and thoughtfully share a story that includes the complicated stories of others not mine to share but inexorably intertwined with my experience.

Emma and some of the first residents of our children's home, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles! (July 2016)

Emma and some of the first residents of our children's home, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles! (July 2016)

I have spent the past several weeks teaching and working with some of the first young children of Casa Hogar Simply Smiles. It’s been awesome to watch these kids tackle new concepts and ideas and just plain get excited about learning. Where their background limits them, it also aids them with a tenacity and curiosity that transcends unfamiliar ideas and concepts and pushes them consistently into a new realm of thinking. When I previously said “limits”, what I really meant was that my choices as an educator needed to be altered. I believe that you need to meet children where they are and foster in them the tools they need to succeed in the future. That is your job as a teacher: recognize where they are and help them grow from there. This is my job currently in Oaxaca, but it took some initial mistakes to remind me of this.

For example, Gaby and I went on a serious book hunt recently to find two copies of the same book for Susana (9) and Emiliano (7) to use for some guided reading structured lessons. We chose one of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” stories (although in Spanish they are just “Diario de Greg”). We chose this first because it was the only somewhat developmentally appropriate book choice for a seven- and nine-year-old to read together that the store had two copies of, and two, I thought the fact that it was from a child’s point of view and had some simple sketches to accompany the words might make it a more relatable and accessible text.

I failed to think about how the concepts in the book—the family staying in multiple hotels, visiting a fair, deciding which restaurants to eat in, having too many belongings packed for the trip to fit into one car, and arguing over what to do about the father’s speedboat—would make connecting with this text challenging for them. I was expecting them to understand character motivation for a family conflict when the center of that conflict was a new speedboat and how it would take away from “family time”—so many concepts of which were foreign to them. I expected them, also, to sympathize with Greg, a character their age, when he has to share one hotel room with his whole family for a night. Their current reality is residing in a room with seven other children and it's awesome. 

Reading time! (July 2016)

Reading time! (July 2016)

My expectations were unrealistic. I failed to meet these kids where they were at and my lessons did not go as planned.

Although not impossible to teach, this book has served as a reminder for me on how important it is to remain conscious of what context and foundation students possess and what perceptions may be influencing my choices as an educator. One other thing I have recognized is just how communal we are in the fundamental nature of being a human child. Telling a seven-year-old who grew up in a satellite mountain village of Oaxaca that you are proud of them and the work they have done elicits the same genuine smile and motivates just as well as it does in on the Reservation, in Connecticut, Philadelphia (where I went to school and started teaching), or anywhere else. 

Similarly, songs, games, creativity and anything that captures the innate curiosity of children will always encourage organic learning—whether the learning is in a homemade bodega classroom in Oaxaca, a community center on the Cheyenne River Reservation, or a fully stocked, state-of-the-art, public school classroom in my hometown of Essex, CT.

This translates into what motivates us as adults as well—dignity, hope, love, and support from those around us.

I think this educational realization can serve as a metaphor for Simply Smiles and the experiences that accompany it. We are all trying our best—staff, volunteers, children of Casa Hogar, community members and friends on the Cheyenne River Reservation—to meet the other where he/she exists in this present moment and move forward together. We do this all while working hard to not be informed or limited by the past but rather focus on the now that is spent in partnership and the gaping potential of what we may accomplish together. It is incredible… and I continue to be amazed by the new, positive perceptions we have already formed by working together towards a brighter collaborative future. Of course, I have experienced this mostly on the Rez, and, specifically in La Plant, but after two short months, I am beginning to recognize it here as well. 

The children enjoy a good book and a good giggle at our children's home, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles! (August 2016)

The children enjoy a good book and a good giggle at our children's home, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles! (August 2016)

Seven years ago, I stood on the dirt road right outside where I currently reside in Oaxaca and stared into an empty lot of overgrown grass as Bryan explained the vision for our very own Simply Smiles children’s home. Today, I sit in the office of Casa Hogar Simply Smiles (on that same property) and I can hear those first resident children laughing and playing below my window as I write. I write about not so much the countless hours spent of academic skills we are working to develop, but rather, about how a nine-, seven-, and four-year-old have encouraged me yet again to see the world in a different way. 

And I thought I was the teacher.

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: Doin’ Work - Physically, Structurally, and Emotionally

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by our friends from Plymouth Congregational Church of Lawrence, Kansas. They are returning for their second volunteer week here on the Reservation with a passionate, enthusiastic and creative group of adults and high school students. Below, they reflect on their first few days of work projects and camp.


A tight seal of caulk goes on our new home!

A tight seal of caulk goes on our new home!

Plymouth Youth Group’s first full day of scheduled activities in La Plant, South Dakota with Simply Smiles ended with sweat, tired muscles and many more new, meaningful, personal connections to the families and specifically the children of the Cheyenne River Reservation.

“When we were setting up the trusses, at first it was just work,” says Alexis Hickman, “but it dawned on me later that I was literally building a house for a family. Especially, after seeing the trailer they currently lived in, and how badly they needed this house.”

“Pouring over thirty bags of concrete was exhausting, but it was very fulfilling to see the end result,” says Tristan Kramar.

“To put something down solid, in concrete, helped to underscore the permanence of what we were doing,” says Rose Winmore.

Both Tristan and Rose also spoke about the family for which they were constructing the concrete path, specifically the two year old son, D.J., who they got to play with and who tried to help out in the process by adding little handfuls of dirt into the concrete mix.

After the day’s work projects came the more, truly, exhausting, yet much more impactful work in the Simply Smiles Day Camp as a bus load of kids as young as four and as old as thirteen rolled up to the community center. 

“I was blown away by how fast the kids all learned our names, or how they remembered the names of the people who came here last year,” says Jasmine Hawk. “They genuinely seemed excited to see us, to meet us.” 

“The new faces,” says Doug Beene, “seem to provide an escape from their present realities.” 

“For them to remember those who came back,” says Rose, “I guess, in a way, that these people cared about you for more than just one week a year.”

The day camp is a safe space where kids can socialize and play without fear or uncertainty hanging over them. “I got to see two little kindergarteners become instant friends at the bubble station,” Rose says. “They took joy in having the common ground of being the same age, going into kindergarten the next year.” Simply Smiles gave them that place for an introduction. 

Bubble fun at camp!

Bubble fun at camp!

“Honestly,” Tristan says, “I wish I could be a part of the camp all day, instead of working on the projects. Yes, you see progress on the houses, but you see even more progress in making connections with these kids, having great conversations. It produces an even more important form of progress.”

The construction projects are not short on producing powerfully emotional impacts as well though. 

“To be here, to see a house close to being finished, or to see it finished,” Alexis says, “is amazing. To know you were a part of that is amazing.”

The houses that Simply Smiles volunteers help to create provide an invaluable sense of independence for the families who move into them. Being allowed to be a part of this work doesn’t simply create a self congratulating reward of being some sort of liberating savior. Rather, it’s about extending a hand with gratitude for the experience and seeing that paid back through the interactions with the youngest of the reservation and through them the future and recognition of growing pride within the La Plant community that reminds us all of the brotherhood and sisterhood of a shared humanity.


Field Notes from Mexico: Listening with open ears, serving with open eyes

Alex Gross

The latest Field Notes come from our youth volunteers who are now serving in Mexico at our children's home through a service trip coordinated by Silver Lake Conference Center in CT! The first entry is from Camryn Cicarelli of Sandy Hook, CT. The second reflection is from Danielle Peterson of Stratford, CT.


Sunday was our first full day at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles. We began our day by preparing pancakes and having morning reflections, where we learned about our tasks at hand and how they would not only help Simply Smiles, but also the people of Oaxaca. Before beginning our jobs we took a tour around the neighborhood of San Bartolo Coyotepec. It was incredible to see how the people of Oaxaca live; it also made me appreciate how fortunate I am. Each person we passed would smile and say hello (of course in Spanish) which was representative of the unity in this community. 

Camryn (left) and fellow volunteer, Katherine, pass cement bricks for an expansion of a patio at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles.

Camryn (left) and fellow volunteer, Katherine, pass cement bricks for an expansion of a patio at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles.

Once we were assigned our tasks, the long day began. I spent the afternoon moving a pile of sand and gravel in preparation for some cement mixing to expand the facility for more children in the future; under the intense Mexican heat, this task felt insurmountable. The feeling of finally completing the task was intensely rewarding. 

In the late afternoon we visited Casa Hogar Benito Juarez, the first children’s home that Simply Smiles supported, which was a life-changing experience. At first I didn’t really know how to communicate with the people there. But as the night progressed, communication became natural. We first made bracelets with some of the children. Although nobody could actually figure out how to assemble them, we shared lots of laughs.

One moment that I really cherished was when a young blind man named Nacho picked up the guitar and played like nothing I had ever heard before. Another notable moment of this night was playing basketball and soccer with a few of the boys at Casa Hogar. I was way too confident going in, and was quickly put in my place when a boy half my age dribbled right past me, leaving me in the dust. 

It was such an amazing feeling knowing that we were able to make all the people there smile, even if we were just there for a few hours. Overall, the day gave me a chance to see how a person thriving in this community actually lives. Also, it allowed me to see how important an organization like Simply Smiles is, and the power we have to impact a life. 

- Camryn

The Silver Lake volunteers with the children of Casa Hogar Benito Juarez.

The Silver Lake volunteers with the children of Casa Hogar Benito Juarez.


After the hard work day on Sunday, most of us were able to sleep pretty soundly, which was much needed. Monday began with a pre-breakfast yoga session led by Jen, which helped center our minds and mentally prepare us for the full day we had ahead of us. Plus, the stretching really helped our sore muscles from yesterday! Again, we split into various work groups, with some of us mixing cement, some reorganizing the bodega storeroom, and some cleaning decorative bricks for the new children’s rooms, among other jobs. I personally worked a lot on the roof laying bricks for the new patio, which was challenging due to not only the hot sun, but also the fact that Simply Smiles local foreman Javier and his crew accepted nothing less than perfection, which is understandable. The way it was explained to us was to do as well as we could, and to complete the work to the quality that you’d want for your own house— there is no “good enough”.

Danielle paints the exterior of a new laundry room at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles.

Danielle paints the exterior of a new laundry room at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles.

After lunch and some more work, we were able to travel to the Oaxaca City Dump, which was an eye-opening experience. All the trash and waste from the city end up there, and there is no separation between innocuous ripped clothing and toxic human waste. The pile has been growing exponentially, to the point where is it nearly overflowing into the communities nearby, and the government isn’t providing any kind of aid. The people in the community begin work at the dump at sunrise, picking through the often toxic trash for small pieces of plastic and anything of value that they can sell. For many, this is their only source of income, which adds up to about $1/day.

Regardless, families were extremely welcoming and opened their homes and the community to us, even though they know we live very different lives than them. Something we talked about at night during reflections was how easy it is to fall into pitying them. It’s very tempting to just come in as “saviors” and do what we think is best, when in reality that may not be what is best for them. 

This is one of the biggest initiatives of Simply Smiles, which I think is very important to its success as an organization—to come in with open eyes and ears and listen to the communities and what they need in order to not only survive, but thrive. We were invited into the first home that Simply Smiles built, for a woman named Edith and her family, and it was amazing to see where Simply Smiles began its work in the dump. Although the conditions are still far less than ideal, Edith and her family take immense pride in their home and the restaurant that they were able to open to further support themselves (the sandwiches are delicious). 

Overall, I’m very grateful for my experience at the dump— it’s very easy to turn your head away from things like this, but we made sure to feel this experience fully in order to show respect to the people living there. The work projects were physically demanding, but this was mentally taxing, and I’m glad I was able to experience it. Now, the important thing is to spread awareness of the injustices these hardworking, gracious people face every day, and to do something about it. The initiatives of Simply Smiles are working toward this goal, and I’m very glad I can experience this work first-hand and serve as an amplifier for the voices of the people of Oaxaca.  

-Danielle

Field Notes from Mexico: Reflections from first-time Mexico volunteers

Alex Gross

The latest Field Notes come from volunteers now serving in Mexico at our children's home! The purpose of these insights is to give you a glimpse into the lives of Simply Smiles volunteers, the work that they do and experiences they have while currently at our project locations. Practically speaking, Field Notes also serve as a means of checking in with family and friends of our volunteers! The first entry is by Michele Miller from Monterey, MA, who has served with us on the Reservation and now joins Gaby, Sam and Dave in Mexico for the first time. The second reflection is by two students, Graeme Cohen and Quinn Russo, from the Oxford Academy of Westbrook, CT.


Michele is all smiles as she paints the space that will soon be the kitchen at our children's home!

Michele is all smiles as she paints the space that will soon be the kitchen at our children's home!

In less than 48 hours, our Simply Smiles team has left behind the daily routines of our lives and the media madness of the moment to participate in the building of a new children's home here in a suburb of Oaxaca. This is not the picturesque Oaxaca you might be familiar with but the hardscrabble hand to mouth existence of the most impoverished people of Mexico. Beautiful people persevering against the odds. 
 

On Sunday, we visited Casa Hogar Benito Juarez, the inspiration for the current effort, to play and eat with the children. After a morning of pouring cement for the roof of the second story bathroom and painting the kitchen ceiling, we visited the dump where many families live in impossible conditions, sorting through the refuse of the entire city, to scavenge a living. Simply Smiles has become very close to these families, helping build homes and supporting their efforts to thrive. All of us feel this deeply, and are forever changed.

We will be bringing this rich experience home and hope other will join us next time we visit. - Michele Miller


The group during a trip to Monte Alban.

The group during a trip to Monte Alban.

As a participant of the Simply Smiles team, we have taken a break from a long day of climbing sturdy makeshift stairs while carrying heavy bucket loads of cement for the laundry room. Today, we spent the morning at Monte Alban exploring the Zapotec ruins, one of the beautiful wonders of Oaxaca.

Although we took a rest this morning, our minds are still reflecting the hardships we have seen. From Casa Hogar, to the depressing sight of the dump it has really made us reevaluate the meaning of life. Coming from a first world country, most of us take things for granted. When returning home, the strong emotions that we have experienced in these encounters will stay with us the rest of our lives. We believe it is our duty to pass along these experiences, and share the emotions that have been revealed. - Graeme Cohen and Quinn Russo


Field Notes from Mexico: bias, belonging, and dignity building - abroad and at home

Alex Gross

This latest Field Note comes from Sacred Heart University philosophy professor, Dr. Andrew Pierce. Drew volunteered with a team from SHU in mid-January 2016 and also worked alongside his former student - and our program manager of Mexican operations - Gaby Chavez Hernandez. Drew reflects on the complexities of racial and cultural bias and how to effectively and thoughtfully learn from his volunteer experience.


At the end of an amazing and challenging week-long experience with Simply Smiles in Oaxaca, I am left struggling to process all that I saw and did there, and to figure out a way to incorporate the experience into my daily life here in the United States. It’s a lot to process, but I’d like to focus on just one aspect of the trip, one that moved me deeply, and challenged me to think deeply about poverty and injustice as they manifest not only in Oaxaca, but in my own backyard as well.

The experience I’d like to reflect on was not the most physically challenging (in fact, it was probably one of the most fun experiences of the week), but it was challenging in other ways. On our final day with Simply Smiles, we organized a dinner and party for about a hundred people from the dump community that we visited earlier in the week.

The Sacred Heart University group gets a tour of the Oaxaca City garbage dump from Simply Smiles staffers Gaby and Zach, while standing on one of the trash mountains that overlook the communities below. (January 2016)

The Sacred Heart University group gets a tour of the Oaxaca City garbage dump from Simply Smiles staffers Gaby and Zach, while standing on one of the trash mountains that overlook the communities below. (January 2016)

This is a community of people who live and work in the Oaxaca City garbage dump, sorting through trash to find recyclables to sell. Picture them for a moment. How do they look in your mind’s eye? Dirty? Dressed in tattered clothing? The image you’ve concocted is probably not too far from the reality that we experienced when we visited that community earlier in the week – a people hardened by the searing sun and the unspeakable conditions in which they live.

And yet, one of the things that struck me about our gathering was that, when these families arrived, their appearance had changed drastically. They showed up clean, fashionably dressed in a style that most of us in the U.S. would find familiar, and displaying the same warm and amicable demeanor present in all of our interactions with them. Had you met these folks on the street, you would never guess that they lived in such abject poverty.

Perhaps this should not have been all that shocking. We all present ourselves differently at a party than we do at work, or in our homes. Perhaps it’s rather superficial to focus on appearance in this way. But I do think that there is a deeper insight that my superficial reaction was teasing out. It has to do, I think, with basic dignity, and with what it means to be recognized and treated as a fellow member of society in equal standing.

Fitting in, feeling “cool” or fashionable, in short, belonging, is important to all of us in one way or another. But why then are we often offended and enraged when the poor and marginalized demand this kind of belonging? When they demand to look like us? Why do we demand that the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed present themselves deferentially - in tattered cloth, with eyes toward the ground, as inferiors, in order for us to deem them worthy of aid? To bring the point a little closer to home, think of the woman on welfare carrying a designer handbag, or the man in line at the grocery store wearing hundred-dollar sneakers, checking out with food stamps.

These images have become standard tropes in our society, marshalled to blame the victims of systematic poverty and oppression for their own conditions, thereby relieving us of any responsibility we might have to help, or even care, as we ourselves pursue our designer bags, expensive shoes, and all the other accoutrements of consumer society. 

Dr. Pierce, with Gaby, a former philosophy student at SHU and current Simply Smiles program manager of Mexican operations. (January 2016)

Dr. Pierce, with Gaby, a former philosophy student at SHU and current Simply Smiles program manager of Mexican operations. (January 2016)

It may seem like a leap from the Oaxaca City dump to the streets of American cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and etc. But while living in dumps may be uncommon here, the kind of marginalization and injustice minority communities face in the U.S. is, finally, not that different from the kind that I observed in Mexico. The difference is that I have not been raised on a steady diet of stereotypes, rationalization, and disinformation designed to explain and justify the inferior status of the kinds of folks that inhabit the fringes of Oaxacan society, in the way that American society has inundated me with rationalizations of, for example, black urban poverty in the United States. Because of this, it is actually easier to see the people living in the Oaxacan dump as equals, or at least as genuine victims of injustice in need of relief. It is much more difficult to bring this attitude home and apply it to the disadvantaged groups that suffer right before our eyes.

So that is the task that I have set myself upon returning from my trip with Simply Smiles. I will not forget the amazing and inspiring folks that I met there, and I will share their story in hopes that others will be inspired to get involved in their particular struggle.

But perhaps even more importantly, I will make a greater effort to understand the poverty and marginalization in my own society, and search for ways to eradicate it. I will refrain from relying on stereotypes and hasty judgments when interacting with those who may be less advantaged than myself, and I will attempt to recognize and treat them as equals. Instead of searching for reasons to dismiss their claims, I will search for ways to empower and assist them.

In this way, my hope is that my week in Oaxaca does not become a one-off experience that gradually fades into memory, but helps me to become a person committed to justice, equality, and human dignity, in deed as much as in word. 

At the end of the volunteer week, the SHU team had a fiesta with our friends from the Oaxaca City dump - full of homemade tostadas, musical chairs, and lots of laughing! (January 2016)

At the end of the volunteer week, the SHU team had a fiesta with our friends from the Oaxaca City dump - full of homemade tostadas, musical chairs, and lots of laughing! (January 2016)


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: Settling in, adjusting to temperatures, and muddy play day fun!

Alex Gross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Alex Gross

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

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

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

River fun! (Z. Gross, August 2015)

River fun! (Z. Gross, August 2015)

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Gross

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

  • Digging posts for a new playground set

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

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

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

  • Making and pouring cements for a walkway

  • Constructing a rock climbing wall

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

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

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

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


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

Alex Gross

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

It is night four and we nine volunteers agree:

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

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

  3. We came prepared to use our hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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