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


Simply Smiles blog

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

Filtering by Tag: La Plant

Growing moments: 2016 garden season on the Reservation

Alex Gross

by Alexandra Gross, Reservation garden manager

the harvest!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Plant Grows Its Own Food    farmstand series 2016!

Seeds are taking root in La Plant:


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

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

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

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

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


The greenhouse!

Field Notes from the Reservation: 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: Settling in, tapping into talents

Alex Gross

This week's Field Note is brought to you by first-time Reservation volunteer Janet Huley. 

Last night (Sunday), Simply Smiles hosted a large group of families of all ages during its town-wide meal.  Teenaged boys and girls flocked to the recently-completed basketball court and divided into teams with mostly the younger interns and volunteers. 

Parents and grandparents sat down and were eagerly served delicious vegetable pasta with watermelon salad. Some of the ingredients were from the garden and greenhouse behind the big sign that serves as a windbreak and declares to the passing traffic, “La Plant Grows Its Own Food!” One boy asked me suspiciously what the red cubes were in his salad, so I asked him to taste them and tell me if they were a vegetable or a fruit. “Fruit!” he declared. I tried to get him or his brother to sit still for a sketch, but all I could manage were some features before they joined in the games with all the other kids. 

I got two sisters to sit for their portrait for longer and found that there were many critics their age who would take a look and assure the sister “It doesn’t look like you!” The older sister told me that I didn’t draw very well, so I responded that I was rusty and needed more practice; perhaps after drawing for awhile I would do better. She then offered to draw my portrait, and while drawing she kept saying she wasn’t a good drawer and she didn’t know how. She was very hard on herself. I kept telling her that she should draw what pleases her, and never mind what she thought it should look like - to draw it the way she saw it, and if she liked it, that was the most important thing. Her picture of me was wonderful, with many details like my earrings and clothes. I got to keep her picture of me and in turn, she asked for and I gave her my portraits of her, her sister, and her cousins. 

I talked with some of the parents and grandparents and some were outgoing and gregarious, while some were shy and reserved. Everyone lingered over the meal, and we discussed the new playground that I could see would really help. Sometimes the younger children are hesitant to join in on basketball with the older kids, and so they need a safe place to play where people can keep a watchful eye on them!

Monday began our workday. We had assignments, some of which were geared toward our interests and talents. I was working in designing and implementing a book club sign with several other very talented, creative people. We sketched it out and tried out different designs before finding a suitable piece of wood for the sign and the books we wanted to hang on it. We decided that each book title that the club read would be painted on a little piece of wood with the year, and placed on the sign. We found painting supplies and divided up the work, in addition to priming and painting signs for the vegetable garden. 

A new sign is created to celebrate Book Club milestones! Each book completed will be marked on the Book Club board! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

A new sign is created to celebrate Book Club milestones! Each book completed will be marked on the Book Club board! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Next to us, my husband, who is also volunteering this week, was working on building a tent for holding music camp. He was in his element working with a team of enthusiastic volunteers digging stakes and assembling this tent that will shade a group of kids on Tuesday. Elsewhere, a group was preparing the ground for the playground, and everyday we share the chores of everyday living.

Earlier we toured an almost-finished house, and a house in progress. Inspired by the future, we were told we were going to help unload two new houses - by hand! - to be delivered this week.

Summer camp brought back some of the kids we had seen on Sunday, and we were ready with many activities. I couldn’t get anyone to allow me to paint their face, but they did allow me to paint buffalo, suns, basketballs, Minions, and wolves howling at the moon on their hands and arms. In turn, I got a Minion on my hand and some blue faceprint, too. Kids tie-dyed bandanas, decorated treasure boxes, drew with chalk, played beanbags and made friendship bracelets. 

In the reading nook, I was privileged to have one read a whole book out loud to me. 

Field Notes from the Reservation: What a difference a month - and week - makes

Alex Gross

After a month of working in our Connecticut office, Simply Smiles Program Manager Alexandra Gross returned to the Reservation and was nothing short of impressed with all the visible changes. The following is her reflection on her first week back. Note: This post addresses the subject of suicide, which may be a sensitive or unsuitable topic for younger audiences. Reader discretion is advised.

Last Saturday, when I approached the Community Center in La Plant with a busload full of eager volunteers from Monroe and South Granby, I was so excited to see the physical transformation that occurred at our home base in just a month. The property now boasts a new split-rail fence. A colorful and intricately designed buffalo art instillation dots the landscape. And, after just one week, there’s a brand-new archery range. The shell of the new home construction project is painted a vibrant red and is well on its way for us to begin work on the interior of the structure. And, as the resident food grower, I was beyond thrilled to see the plants popping in the garden, basil and lettuce ready to be planted in the hydroponics system, and the end walls of the greenhouse go up, which begins the process to extend the growing season in the colder months.

Working together on the new archery range! (A.Gross, July 2015, La Plant)

Working together on the new archery range! (A.Gross, July 2015, La Plant)

I didn’t think it was possible, but my month away from the Reservation projects made me even more impressed and humbled by the work that we do. I’ll also go on record and say we have the best volunteers of any organization. Ever! Their fearlessness and willingness to make the trip out to the Reservation and give their entire physical and emotional person is a true testament to their strength and commitment. 

And, the distance away did in fact confirm what I had previously written about in a blog post: Things will be ok. Things will grow. 

It was also an enormous week for Simply Smiles as an organization: Our incredible, amazing Gaby officially signed on to run our Mexican operations and returned to Mexico to begin her journey. I’ll miss seeing her and enjoying her quick wit everyday, but the absence will just make our friendship grow stronger and make my future visits to Oaxaca that much more special.

The second major event: Wambli, our young friend from the Reservation,  traveled with Zach back to Connecticut and attended Fairfield University's weeklong summer program for prospective students! Her mom arrived in Connecticut this weekend, and will also be visiting campus and also meeting our family and friends on the East Coast. As a friend of Wambli and Fairfield alum, my heart is bursting at the thought of her future there! 

Although the exact nature of bright futures can be challenging to fully determine, both Gaby and Wambli are shining examples of leadership and pillars of hope for the youth that we serve and, really, for all of us in the Simply Smiles community.

* * * * *

Now, onto the heavy part of my post.

In all of my adult life, I’ve never felt so heart-broken, helpless, defeated, and human as I did  in this past week. We received word that a young woman from a neighboring town died by suicide. Although we did not know this young woman directly, she was a friend and teammate to many of the children whom we serve. In the days following, we also heard of a few suicide attempts.

We immediately went into crisis management, mitigation and mediation mode. We talked to all of the kids at camp, offering our ears and support. Most importantly, we confirmed how much they individually and collectively mean to us and reiterated that we are always, at all times, there if they need us.

The gravity of the young woman’s death, at only 14, and the attempts of others is unfathomable. How, at such a young age, is death a rational option? How can an individual that is so full of potential see the logic and, even glory, in dying at such a young age? Or, that they’ve somehow reached their peak before reaching adulthood?

On our weekly trip to Eagle Butte and Dairy Queen, I saw many cars placard with “R.I.P.”, along with streamers and other decorations that sought to memorialize the young woman. In the days following, there would be celebrations of life and a funeral service for the girl. I couldn't get past the fact that her death erred on the side of one big party, and not more seriously considered as what it is: an endemic.

According to the President’s December 2014 Native Youth Report:

  • Among U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 17, Native youth have the highest lifetime prevalence of major depressive episodes.

  • Native children are also 70% more likely to be identified in school as students with an emotional disturbance.

  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death— 2.5 times the national rate—for Native male youth in the 15 to 24 year old age group.

Further, in her April 2015 address on native youth, First Lady Michelle Obama made several poignant and pointed remarks: 

“…we shouldn’t be surprised at the challenges that kids in Indian Country are facing today. And we should never forget that we played a role in this.  Make no mistake about it – we own this

And we can’t just invest a million here and a million there, or come up with some five year or ten-year plan and think we’re going to make a real impact. This is truly about nation-building, and it will require fresh thinking and a massive infusion of resources over generations. That’s right, not just years, but generations.”

As Americans, we should be embarrassed and ashamed by these realities. In these facts, I see the sweet, innocent faces of the children in La Plant. Their default reality is not and should not be OK. As the First Lady said, “We own this.”

No matter how many houses we build or physical seeds we sow, none of it matters if suicide rates continue at the pace and frequency at which they occur on Reservations. Fortunately, Simply Smiles is present for the children in La Plant, and, really, all who know that we are there. We forge personal relationships to the kids and families in town, and they know that the lines of communication are always open. Although the reality of youth suicide is ever present, I know and am comforted by the fact that we are making strides to prevent the frequency of such events.

Living and working on the Reservation is, well, a lot. You begin to embody the weight of the place. You have to be at the ready at all times, ready for the next crisis. We're always ready to give a hug, and both protect and encourage our young friends. It’s not exactly a stress-free life, but it’s one that my coworkers and I choose to live. 

I’m still processing the week, and I likely will for the rest of my life. The staff will continue to  learn more about crisis management and suicide prevention, and how to navigate the complexities of this reality.

I can’t make a resounding point, nor do I have answers, except to offer up what I hope can be of some solace to volunteers, my co-workers and other change-makers in similar and trying situations: We need to approach and practice all of our efforts and interactions with mindfulness and love. Love is ultimately at the core of our work to create, build, and encourage bright futures for the youth that we serve.

(E. Russell, La Plant, July 2015)

(E. Russell, La Plant, July 2015)

Field Notes from the Reservation: The weight of being present

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by Jackie Plavnicky, who is volunteering with our friends from Monroe and South Granby this week in La Plant. Note: The following post discusses subject matter that may be unsuitable or sensitive for younger audiences.

I have grown to really appreciate my friends and family, as these past couple days have been quite intense. I was hit hard when, on the first day we arrived, I learned that a 14-year-old girl from a nearby town -- a girl whom many kids in La Plant knew -- had killed herself. She was not too much younger than me, or any of the youth on this trip for that matter. There is such a sense of normalcy within the children on the Reservation when it comes to suicide in such a way that is way beyond horrifying. The people and children here do not know just how amazing, relevant, and important they are. I am sure everyone here would agree that this needs to change, and soon.

I apologize if the paragraph above makes life here sound horrible and tragic because that is only a fraction of what is happening during my experience with Simply Smiles. The people here are amazing, from the children on the Reservation to the friendly adults, and definitely the people I am traveling with. The children here may not have welcomed us with open arms, especially since we arrived just after they lost someone close to them, but they warmed up to us eventually. 

If they are given time, the children can be the most adorable, energetic and playful children I have ever had the chance to spend time with. One of the little girls, Joshlynn, was the first child to accept me with open arms (literally). She begged me for a piggyback ride, and our friendship grew from there. I found myself getting more and more attached to this amazing girl, as well as her friends Madison and Angel. Angel is also one of the sweetest kids I have met. On the first day, the group had the pleasure of meeting all the children, he came up to me and gave me a hug. After I got over the initial sense of surprise, I hugged the young boy back and got to know him through crafts and games. 

After spending so much time with these children, I know I am going to have a hard time leaving them. The bonds I have made with them have grown more than I thought possible prior to this trip. 

Piggyback rides are always a hit with the kids! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Piggyback rides are always a hit with the kids! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

This bond has also formed a weight on my shoulders (that I am more than happy to carry) to make sure these friends on the reservation get the help and support that they deserve. 

I want to see little Sunshine and her sister playing in the soon-to-be finished playground. I want to one day see Joshlynn innocently playing with her friends without the depressing feeling in the air. I want to see each and every child (and adult, of course) happy and content. I know that this is an incredibly hard task to take on -- one that may exceed my generation, unfortunately -- but I need to hold on to the hope that things will change. 

With the support that I will gather from those around me after this trip, I hope to better the conditions here, even if the change is minuscule.

Field Notes from the Reservation: Hard work, rewarding smiles

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note recapping the Wapping Community Church's first few days in La Plant is brought to you by youth volunteers Mike Fialkoff and Aly Dansereau and chaperone Nancy Bassilakis.

Fun with face paint at camp!

Fun with face paint at camp!

Monday was a sweltering summer day in the plains of South Dakota, a far cry from the scenery of South Windsor, CT. A mix of high school students and adults have worked diligently to contribute to the efforts and philosophy of Simply Smiles.

Shocked by the immense difference between the lifestyles of the residents of the Reservation and our group, we worked intently on improving the outlook of all of those involved in the Simply Smiles experience. Our day today was one of the hardest and dirtiest that we have ever experienced, but the Simply Smiles ideals have kept us persevering for the sake of those who we are here for. 

By interacting with the energetic children, we have been able to realize that they are no different than children back home. They are shy when you first meet them, but eventually warm up to you with a game of Ball-tag or signing your name in their notebook.

In just a few hours, friendly relationships have been formed and we look forward to spending more time with the kids.

Though our week has just begun, we have already been able to acknowledge the impact that we have had on the community and imagine the improvements that can only further help. This trip thus far has proven to be one of the most rewarding experiences and will continue to be throughout and after our time here at Simply Smiles. 

-Aly and Mike

On Tuesday, we continued to work on projects around the community center in the morning and at the summer camp in the afternoon. Although the official work project time is less than four hours, we have been able to accomplish so much. Our group has divided and conquered over the past few days, tackling projects that most of us have never done before. Between installing light fixtures and house finishing, to the laborious and heavy concrete mixing, we have broken our backs (figuratively) several times over. Our kids are giving their all to this community, both physically and emotionally. 

Planning for play:  Our friends from Wapping work with Emma and Sam to prepare the ground and border for an upcoming playground project!

Planning for play: Our friends from Wapping work with Emma and Sam to prepare the ground and border for an upcoming playground project!

We end each day with a community circle. Our 23 youth and 6 advisors talked about what we have seen and experienced here on the Reservation. Bryan (the founder of Simply Smiles) had spoken at our church and told us about the level of poverty on the Reservation. But even that did not prepare us for what we have seen. Although the prairie is vast and beautiful, the remoteness of this place is startling. Compared to Connecticut, there is nowhere to go, nothing to do. No jobs, no recreation center, no retirement home, no preschool program, no grocery store, no doctor, no vet for all of the stray dogs (which the kids have quickly become attached to), no anything. 

Last night, we sat in a circle and processed our thoughts thus far, sharing our surprises, our joys, and our wishes for the people of LaPlant. They talked about how cars and campers and motorcycles just drive by on their way to their destination and never realize the struggles of the people who live in La Plant. They talked about the remoteness of the people who live here without cars with a sense of shock. How do they survive without a grocery store nearby?

And they talked about the joy on the children’s faces when you play basketball, or build LEGOs, or let them paint your face. I sat in the circle listening to our compassionate youth with tears in my eyes. Tears of sorrow for the challenges that face the children of La Plant, and tears of joy that our children see the challenges and know that they are making a difference. 

To everyone who supported our mission to La Plant, South Dakota, not only have you made a positive impact on the people of La Plant through sending our youth out here to build houses and playgrounds, but you have changed all of us in so many ways as well. The depth of compassion and love that we are developing will be something that we will carry with us of the rest of our lives. Thank you.

- Nancy

Field Notes from the Reservation: Raising walls, making friends

Alex Gross

This mid-week Field Note is a collective post by the student and faculty volunteers from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT (which also happens to be Gaby's alma mater! )

We arrived on Saturday, June 20th and, as soon as we arrived, the fun started. This week is dedicated to health promotion with topics that including nutrition, dental care, heart health, and diabetes. Some of the students and faculty are from different concentrations in the health professions, and we have some individuals from the social work department.

We didn’t know what to expect coming onto the Reservation, but we all came in with an open mind and positive thoughts for the week ahead.  

On our first full day, we went on a wonderful tour of the Community Center and the town of La Plant, and we started to learn about the culture and the Lakota. At a first glance, the homes looked like a safe place to live and to raise a family. When Sam started to tell us stories, the group started to realize just how severe the living conditions were for some families, both physically and emotionally. It was challenging to hear about the way some children lived and to hear about the school system. It was disheartening to hear that education is not valued, and that children had few hopes or ambition before Simply Smiles. These anecdotes moved us to be a change in the community and to make the most out of the week despite the obstacles that we knew that we would face.  

In the afternoon, we started to work on some of our projects that we would be working on continuously throughout the week. It was a great way to dive head on into the week. In the evening, we helped to set up and prepare for the town wide dinner. We met some of the community members and shared a meal with them. Many of the people in town were more than willing to have us sit at their table and they welcomed conversation.

Our days have started off with a morning mile and, then, moved onto work projects after a delicious breakfast. Our group was divided into subgroups to work on various projects. Some of the work projects have included cementing the whimsical path to the future playground site, putting up the walls on Elvis and Renessa’s new home (which we finished! Yay!), working on the garden, and cutting and painting pieces of plywood for a new buffalo art installation. 

(Almost) raising the roof!:  The Sacred Heart group works with our friends Kee and Elvis to get the exterior supports of the house complete!

(Almost) raising the roof!: The Sacred Heart group works with our friends Kee and Elvis to get the exterior supports of the house complete!

Although the work is challenging, we know that the work we are doing is going to benefit the individuals in LaPlant.  

In the afternoon, we had camp and got to meet some of the amazing children. At first, the children were quiet and didn’t really interact with us. Many of us have had experience with children and, during our evening conversation of "highs and lows," the unresponsiveness of the children was a universal "low." 

The kids have to get re-accustomed to new people every week, which must be really hard. They get close to someone in a short amount of time and then those volunteers leave, and are replaced with others.  However, that next day there was something different about the children. They were more open with us and asked us to do things with them like craft or play basketball.  

Basketball remains the go-to activity with the kids! (E. Russell, La Plant, June 2015)

Basketball remains the go-to activity with the kids! (E. Russell, La Plant, June 2015)

A moment in the powwow grounds!  (E. Russell, La Plant, June 2015)

A moment in the powwow grounds! (E. Russell, La Plant, June 2015)

We did some drawing activities, bracelet-making, made some mosaic kites, played kickball, knockout, basketball, jump roped, and played some board games.

Hearing their laughs and seeing their smiles made our day better.

On Tuesday night, we had bingo night at the Community Center. It was great to be able to see the town, young and old alike, enjoying the game, as well as the weather.  

On Wednesday, Barbara, a La Plant resident, was kind enough to tell us about what her life was like. It was difficult to hear some of the things she was saying, especially when she became so emotional talking about her experience with the boarding schools. We had no idea that some teachers at her school were actually Lakota themselves. Hearing a first-hand account of what it is like to live here on the Reservation was not only eye-opening but also extremely powerful.

It's a conversation that we won't easily forget. 

Field Notes from the Reservation: Perception versus reality of the Plains

Alex Gross

Today, our Field Note is brought to you by volunteers Delaney, Sofia, Lauren, and Gaby from the Palmer Trinity School in Miami, Florida, who are spending the week in La Plant with us!

Spending a week on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation is nothing like we imagined it would be - we pictured empty plains of grass, filled with roaming buffalo and tipis scattered throughout the landscape. These may be typical images from the movies but, in reality, it is far from it.

While spending time on the Reservation these past couple of days, we realized that our imaginations were heavily influend by media and that we didn’t take time to think about how life on the Reservation has drastically changed with time. This Simply Smiles trip has introduced us to the real world of the Lakota, and these stereotypical images has been erased.

Fun building at camp!  (Z.Gross, June 2015, La Plant, S.D.)

Fun building at camp! (Z.Gross, June 2015, La Plant, S.D.)

We've realized that the people in La Plant are some of the most genuine, caring people that we've ever met, and the fact that our country attempted to eradicate them makes us ashamed.

Some of the families on the Reservation may be broken, but to see the children’s smiles warms our hearts. Their resilience amazes us.  We have connected with the children during camp, carried them on our backs, and played endless games. We spent an afternoon in a cooking class where we made conversation with some of the elders and heard their stories of how our government shamed them for speaking in their native tongue.

This Simply Smiles trip, especially interacting and talking to the people here in La Plant, has opened our eyes to how dangerous our preconceived notions can be and, at the same time, just how wrong they really are. 

Many hands:  The Palmer Trinity School crew helped to install six wall panels on a new home for a great family in La Plant!

Many hands: The Palmer Trinity School crew helped to install six wall panels on a new home for a great family in La Plant!

Field Notes from the Reservation: Gaining confidence, building dreams

Zach Gross

Sunday morning on the Cheyenne River Reservation consisted of a tour of La Plant that helped our group gain perspective and knowledge about the town. The afternoon included time on some work projects -- moving wall panels for a new home over to the build site and improvements to the town's community center. This introduction to the week ahead made us thirsty for more. Sunday concluded with a delicious town-wide dinner, and a confidence-building softball game that helped us to interact with the community and kids.

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Field Notes from the Reservation: Processing the last day of the volunteer week

Alex Gross

The final Field Note for the week from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point volunteer group is brought to you by Vanessa Vincent. 

Our last and most exciting day at Simply Smiles: It was a cold and windy morning but members of the community and the Simply Smiles crew still made the effort to walk side-by-side for the morning mile.

While conversing with community members through out the week, I was honored to be able to hear their stories and their experiences.

On Friday, I was so proud to see the children perform at a concert at their school, in which they sang Lakota songs, played the flute, and hoop danced with Lakota storyteller, musician and dancer Kevin Locke. At the end of the program, our crew was asked to dance the friendship dance, or round dance, with the children.  

The group learns how to hoop dance from the kids at a special presentation at the school! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

The group learns how to hoop dance from the kids at a special presentation at the school! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

Vanessa teaches the kids a few new tunes during camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

Vanessa teaches the kids a few new tunes during camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

I feel sad to leave the friends that I have made during my experience with Simply Smiles, especially after working alongside them and talking with the people here. The kids at camp were excited about the games that we provided, and I was so happy that some of them enjoyed playing the piano and singing songs! I was able to teach some of the girls a song on the piano by writing down the notes. The next day one of the girls came to camp and had already learned how to play the song I had taught them! I was thrilled! 

I will take my experience at Simply Smiles back home with me and share what I have learned. I feel I have a broader perception about LaPlant and its community, and I will remember the memories our UWSP crew have made here with Simply Smiles. 

Field Notes from the Reservation: Building relationships, slowly saying goodbye

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is brought to you by University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point student and Simply Smiles volunteer Leah Reineccius.

Today was a very fun packed day on the Rez! I was so delighted to see that more children walked with us during the morning mile. We are really starting to make closer connections with the community and hopefully brighten their days. 

After some work projects in the hot sun, it was Dr. Suess Day at camp! It was rewarding to see the kids become really interested in the crafts and activities we prepared for them.

I am relieved that many are breaking out of their shells. Just as we start to build relationships with them, however, it is almost time to leave! These kids are so deserving of love and support and it’s awesome that they have continuous volunteers to shower them with affection. 

The kids and group watch on as a game of Knock Out is played on the new basketball court. (A.Gross, May 2015, La Plant)

The kids and group watch on as a game of Knock Out is played on the new basketball court. (A.Gross, May 2015, La Plant)

The kids were also fortunate to participate in a fire safety workshop with the Reservation’s Emergency Management and Response Team this afternoon. They even practiced putting out small fires with an extinguisher. Some were apprehensive at first, but as the UWSP and Simply Smiles staff serving as their buddies, they quickly warmed up to it. I was so happy to see that the kids are gaining skills and experiences like this. I didn’t even know how to know use a fire extinguisher! 

It’s fulfilling to know that simple steps such as this can slowly start the process of building a stronger community.

Reflecting back on the whole week, I feel that our group has had a successful week and it’s hard to believe that tomorrow is the last day. I wish I could give these community members everything in the world, but I feel fortunate to have hopefully made them smile a little brighter each day :)

Field Notes from the Reservation: Taking the story home and to heart each year

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is brought to you by four-time Reservation volunteer, Kerri Colombo, who just returned home to Connecticut after her latest trip to La Plant.

As this is my fourth trip to La Plant, in many ways it feels like returning home. Each year the week seems to pass more quickly than the year before. It feels as though I am just getting reacquainted with my Lakota friends and it is almost time to pack up and leave again.

A friend and elder asked what it is that I think when I return to Connecticut. I explained that I worry for my friends here. I check the weather conditions in La Plant throughout the year and hope that their propane does not run out during the harsh winters.

The freezing cold rain, snow and whipping wind at the beginning of our week in La Plant gave us just a very small taste of the severe conditions of living on the Plains (it was about 27 without taking the wind child into account).

Staying connected with old friends

Staying connected with old friends

My friends and elders did run out of propane this winter. I am thankful that it was a relatively mild one. But in La Plant, 6 degrees is considered mild (it can drop to 50 below zero in the dead of winter.) Still, in their poorly insulated trailer the bitter winter could not be kept at bay. Their children and grandchildren had to move out for a while. It was just too cold. My friends stayed behind. They survived another winter. I am thankful that we were still able to share a meal this spring.

Throughout the year, I wonder if my friends here have enough to eat and if the children are experiencing love and affection each day. I hope that the elders feel connected and cared for, and that friends who struggle with addiction will have a good day and carry on. I fear that my friends will not receive proper medical care.

As I told my friend, it is as much the individuals here as it is the unique Simply Smiles experience that brings me back each year. I believe in the hope for the future of this town, and the approach of the Simply Smiles team.

I feel a connection here that I can't really express, except to say that I look forward to returning again to the special individuals I have been blessed to become connected with. Their stories have become my stories as I feel the threads of their lives interwoven with mine.

Field Notes from the Reservation: Insights from a first-time visitor to the Reservation

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is brought to you by Rachel Westby, a first-time volunteer with Simply Smiles and first-time visitor to the Cheyenne River Reservation. This week, she joins her mother, Rev. Laura Westby from First Congregational Church of Bethel.

This is my first year out on a Simply Smiles trip. So far, it has exceeded my expectations. The people I’ve met possess more self-awareness and pride than I have ever seen. Their ability to recall their history back through the generations is staggering. 

This especially resonates with me as a person very interested in history. One woman in particular has touched my soul. Saying her life has been difficult is a gross understatement. Despite her hardships, she has maintained a deep, profound sense of faith and self-worth. She is one of those people who emits positive energy through her pores and anyone who meets her is better for it.

Garden fun:  The kids plant potatoes during garden class in the new raised beds!

Garden fun: The kids plant potatoes during garden class in the new raised beds!

My main service project for this week has been expanding the community garden just outside the Community Center: constructing raised beds and then hauling the soil to fill them with. It has been a labor-intensive, sweat-producing, dirty job, but the gratification I’ve felt has been immense. I also helped get the hydroponic growing tower up and running inside the Community Center. Just today, the little sprouts have emerged over the dirt!

Being able to interact with the kids on the reservation has been so rewarding for me.

Today, I worked with a small group of campers to bake cookies for the community meal tomorrow night. As anyone who has worked with the combination of children and kitchen activities can attest, the success rate is dubious at best. The possible pitfalls are numerous and the potential for at least one child to be covered head to toe in flour is highly likely. However, this is not what happened. 

Fun with food:  The kids make chocolate chip cookies with Rachel and Laura Westby for the town-wide meal on Friday!

Fun with food: The kids make chocolate chip cookies with Rachel and Laura Westby for the town-wide meal on Friday!

I was not anticipating the generally good behavior that the kids exhibited. There was sharing, turn taking, and we all emerged with minimal flour transferred onto our clothes. Not a single cookie disappeared or was unaccounted for, minus the one I swiped for strict quality control purposes. Every child contributed to the dough making process, everyone got an opportunity to put the dough onto the baking sheets, there was only minimal grumbling when they were told they had to wait until tomorrow (an eternity) to enjoy the cookies they made. One girl even offered to help me after all the others had moved on to other activities. Not only that, but each child contributed to the cleaning up, which is rare for most kids without some form of dramatic protesting. It’s been great to experience the universal nature of kids to want a little bit of love and praise.

Overall, this experience has been absolutely incredible.

I know that what our group has done this week will resonate for both myself and the community here in La Plant.

I am already planning to return next year and see wha else has been done, and maybe even rekindle relationships with the kids who I’ve connected with from the summer camp.

Field Notes from the Reservation: Flexibility is fun!

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is brought to you by Jennifer Dupont, a long-time volunteer of Simply Smiles from Naugatuck, Connecticut. Her message: Learning that flexibility can be - and is - fun!

Good afternoon from sunny La Plant, South Dakota! What a difference a day makes! We went from freezing rain and snow to sun and wind in just a 24-hour period. As the Simply Smiles motto goes, "flexibility is fun."

This is my third trip to the Reservation, and I almost didn’t recognize it when we drove up.

There have been so many changes and improvements in just one year: the impressive horseshoe pits, the huge garden and high tunnel, the full size basketball court, the beautiful pow wow grounds and the incredible tipis. 

It is certainly a welcoming place for the children and adults and these features are now a prominent part of their community.

Yesterday was our first day of camp, and the big hit this year is Gordon and Elliott’s Giant Jenga game! They were only half way completed with it and the kids were already having a blast playing. There was coloring, crafting and game playing, but my favorite was the snowball fight with the kids. My only regret was not having brought gloves with me - they would have really been in trouble then!

Balancing act:  The life-size Jenga game required concentration...and lots of deep breaths from participating campers!

Balancing act: The life-size Jenga game required concentration...and lots of deep breaths from participating campers!

We have been working on the garden, getting more beds ready for planting and finishing work on the new house. Not enough hours in the day to get it all in! I am sad when we have to stop working, and I haven’t completed my project but then I realize I get to play with the kids. I am sad when the kids all go home but then I realize how exhausted I am.

I wish I could put into words how much this place and everyone here means to me. I am so grateful and blessed to be able to have this opportunity to be a part of something as special as this.

Thank you Simply Smiles staff and interns for always taking such great care of us!

Now, back to work!

Field Notes from the Reservation: Overcoming obstacles

Alex Gross

This latest Field Note is brought to you by Dave Shaw, a loyal volunteer from Naugatuck, Connecticut. Dave shares his insights into his first few days here in La Plant...including some weather-related obstacles!

We are touring the area in and around the Sam D. Horse Community Center in La Plant, South Dakota on the Cheyenne River Lakota Reservation. Zach Gross is reviewing the 10 principles abided by the Simply Smiles staff and community.

The first: The need always trumps the obstacles.

The wind is howling outside. The precipitation is changing from snow to sleet. It is May 10, 2015.

Our friends from Naugatuck and Bethel arrive to a snowy Rapid City. (May 2015)

Our friends from Naugatuck and Bethel arrive to a snowy Rapid City. (May 2015)

We came here to do service projects and to just be with the people. The weather alone tells us of the need of the Lakota, living on un-farmable land far from the amenities we are used to. Farmable land is a need. Raised bed growing of vegetables and hydroponic gardening overcomes that obstacle.

Some volunteers like myself brought no boots. A small obstacle is overcome with plastic bags over the sneakers. We all help with the needs here on the Reservation through our presence.

Two days ago, our team of four from Naugatuck and four from Bethel left the warm spring weather of Connecticut. We arrived in Rapid City, South Dakota, to snow. The Big Red Bus was not running, so the obstacle was overcome by picking us up in the van and the pickup truck.

On the road trip to the Reservation, we made our usual stops at the Call of the Wild gas station, Wall Drug, the Midland Store, and re-fueled in Eagle Butte. The distances from the Reservation to amenities pose yet another obstacle.

After being welcomed, and having dinner, we had a round of introductions, and slept. Going to the outhouse at night in windy sleeting conditions was an obstacle to overcome.

Sunday morning, as the storm continued, we learned of the back-history of the place and some of the systemic problems that created the need of the area. We started on a few projects and held the town-wide Mother’s Day dinner. Many ventured out in the storm. We readied the Community Center and the energetic entrance of the children and a few mothers got the dinnertime going. Eager chaos! 

Getting reacquainted with friends. Meeting new friends.

“You were here last year.” “Have the frogs started singing?” “Not yet.” Gifts of homemade goat milk soap, handmade quilts and take-out dinners are sent home to the moms and their families.

The week has begun. We’ll work on a house, hydroponic gardening, green houses, run after-school camp, for which we’ll build a large jenga game.

A week’s worth of tasks and special times with our friends in La Plant lies before us.  

The Ten Principles of Simply Smiles:

  1. The need always trumps the obstacles.

  2. A high standard of excellence in all we do.

  3. Preserve and build dignity.

  4. Perception matters.

  5. We are all ambassadors.

  6. Always explain why.

  7. No one is above any task or person.

  8. Under promise, over deliver.

  9. Always have fun.

  10. No busy work ever.