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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: Gaby Chavez Hernandez

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 Mexico: An update from Gaby!

Alex Gross

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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