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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: Mexico

Field Notes from Oaxaca: "There was cactus in my soup"

Alex Gross

This Field Note is from a multi-serving Simply Smiles volunteer and all-star community member, Betsy Van Loon. Over the years, Betsy has volunteered many times on the Reservation, but the following is her mid-week reflection during her first trip to the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico. And, learn the reasoning behind her unique post title here:


As is true with all Simply Smiles service trips, it’s challenging to find the right words. But, having cactus soup (sopa de nopales) is a good encapsulation of my experience so far: delicious, different, and deeply satisfying.

The Simply Smiles Home for Children is filled with bright colors, warm sun, amazing food, love, and laughter. There are 18 children, 2 dogs, 1 pig (a temporary visitor!), and numerous staff. This is a place of peace, security, cooperation, fun and function. I am a mother and a grandmother, and I would be happy to have any child raised in this place. This is the family that all children deserve and need to thrive.

Simply Smiles Volunteer Betsy Van Loon sharing some pictures, working with the kids at our children’s home on some homework, and learning some Spanish in the process!

Simply Smiles Volunteer Betsy Van Loon sharing some pictures, working with the kids at our children’s home on some homework, and learning some Spanish in the process!

During the week, the routine is simple and secure for the children. They are up early and dressed for school and have breakfast before they depart. No fussing, no fighting, and no drama. After school, the children immediately change from their uniforms to “play clothes.” Lunch is then served including homemade cactus soup. Then, it is time for homework. I can hear the children with the tutors downstairs as I am writing. After the work is done, it’s time for play.

American children are rushed from one activity to another, constantly under close adult supervision that often turns to interference. The children here are competent and independent. There is plenty of supervision but the children depend, with grace and energy, on each other and themselves. Each contributes to the community by doing their chores. Gaby and her staff have created an oasis of calm that touches the heart of all who come here.

The motto of Simply Smiles is “providing bright futures.” But every bright future depends on a happy today and the children’s home in Oaxaca is creating a happy today and another one tomorrow and the day after.

I am inviting everyone to come experience this place of peace and calm. Let yourself be surrounded by the love of the children and let them guide you through learning Spanish. They are supporting me in my grammatical goofs and gaffs with laughter and hugs.

And there is an endless supply of tortillas and black beans.

- Betsy

Say  queso!   The kids at the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico with volunteer Betsy Van Loon.

Say queso! The kids at the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico with volunteer Betsy Van Loon.


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


What Simply Smiles Means to Me: A reflection from Erin Scionti, volunteer & intern extraordinaire

Alex Gross

Erin Scionti first volunteered on the Reservation in 2013 and returned as an intern in 2015. She joined Simply Smiles staff members Zach and Sam and a team of medical staff during our fall medical clinic and food distribution program in Mexico in November. Below, Erin reflects on her experiences. 

I was beyond ecstatic when I was offered the opportunity to travel with Simply Smiles to Oaxaca, Mexico to help with the food and medicine distribution in the village of Santa Maria Tepexipana (SMT), and to assist Dr. Gil L’italien in testing stool samples to determine the prevalence of various intestinal parasites in that region. I am currently studying public health at Southern Connecticut State University, so this trip encapsulated everything that I had learned so far in the classroom. It made the classroom lessons tangible. I could feel and see the impact of the countless hours spent studying textbook material.

Erin, right, works alongside Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'italien to test stool samples for the presence of parasitic intestinal worms in Santa Maria Tepexipana and its neighboring communities.

Erin, right, works alongside Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'italien to test stool samples for the presence of parasitic intestinal worms in Santa Maria Tepexipana and its neighboring communities.

We arrived in Oaxaca as a spirited group of eight hard working and dedicated individuals, ready to take on the crucial tasks ahead. Coming into the week, I already had a strong understanding of what was expected of us as representatives of Simply Smiles. I served as an intern with Simply Smiles this past summer on the Cheyenne River Reservation in La Plant, South Dakota. There, I saw the attentiveness, flexibility and love put into each project and person by the staff of Simply Smiles. Though the tasks were drastically different in Oaxaca than those I worked on in La Plant, our mission remained the same: to inspire hope. 

On our first day in Oaxaca, we visited Casa Hogar Benito Juarez, the children’s home that first inspired Simply Smiles. I was a bit nervous at first that I wouldn’t be able to connect well with the kids because of our language differences. But, I learned quickly that language was the smallest of barriers standing in the way of children and fun. The kids warmed up to us immediately as we colored, ran around and enjoyed multiple servings of their favorite ice cream. Seeing the way the kids at Casa Hogar interacted with us reassured me that a language barrier wouldn't stop me from connecting and building relationships with the other children I would meet throughout the week. 

The next day, we departed on an eight hour drive through the breathtakingly beautiful roads of Oaxaca up to Santa Maria Tepexipana, a small village in the remote mountains. When we arrived, I was expecting to see a town in despair but instead I saw quite the opposite. Though poor and many stricken with illness, the people of SMT were some of the warmest people I have ever met. I was so fortunate to meet these kind-hearted individuals, which reaffirmed that happiness is not a measurement of material worth, but rather, a reflection of how one values life.

People in SMT are simply happy to give love and be loved. Families took pride in their home and their culture, they looked out for one another and willingly took less to give others more. Their generosity never ceased to amaze me. One family cleared out an entire half of their home so that we would have a place to sleep and eat during the week. Like the children at Casa Hogar, the kids in SMT instantly became our best friends, hugging us, and holding our hands upon moments of our arrival. I was pleased to see that, once again, despite our language differences, we were welcomed with open arms and smiling faces. 

During the three days of the food distribution and the medical clinic, I worked closely with Dr. Gil Litalien in examining stool samples to track the prevalence of intestinal parasites in the SMT region. We looked specifically for Ascaris, Trichuris, and hookworm. We gathered samples from 113 children who came through the food distribution program with their families.

After careful examination, we found a 21.2% prevalence in the entirety of the region, compared to a 31.4% prevalence in 2014. This 10% decline is a remarkable confirmation that the work Simply Smiles is doing to treat and prevent the spread of infection is noticeably working. By distributing Abendezol at each food distribution and educating the community on the importance of hand washing and wearing shoes out side, the prevalence of intestinal parasites in the SMT region has drastically decreased. 

Erin, during her time as an intern on the Reservation in 2015. Her positive attitude, willingness to lend a hand wherever needed, and sense of humor are among her many qualities that make her a favorite in the La Plant community!

Erin, during her time as an intern on the Reservation in 2015. Her positive attitude, willingness to lend a hand wherever needed, and sense of humor are among her many qualities that make her a favorite in the La Plant community!

As the week continued to run with ease, thanks to the hard work of our energized and committed team, I grew more and more attached to all the smiling faces of the children and their families in SMT. The people I met in this one small village in Oaxaca, Mexico were so thankful for the help we brought them, but I feel what they gave me in return was an even greater gift. They gave me their friendship. Though our work here is not complete, I returned home knowing that the people we helped this week would continue to grow healthy and remain happy. 

Interning for Simply Smiles has taught me a great deal about myself and the world around me. I’ve learned how to be a valuable part of a team, how to be a strong leader, how to love and care for everyone I meet and most importantly how a simple smile can go a long way.


Tell us what Simply Smiles means to you! Respond with a comment below, post to our Facebook page, Instagram a photo, or tweet @simplysmilesinc using the hashtag #SimplySmilesmeans.

Giving thanks for the Simply Smiles community

Alex Gross

Simply Smiles President & Founder, Bryan Nurnberger, is currently on a two-week visit to our programs in Oaxaca, Mexico. He sent us this dispatch from the place where Simply Smiles began and reflects on the theme of gratitude and its prominent place in our organization's history.


This morning, walking through a barrio of rusted tin houses, rutted dirt roads, and skeleton thin dogs, the smell of raw sewage triggered a part of my consciousness that reminded me of how much time I’ve spent in places like this. 

Open doors reveal glimpses of lives I can never really understand. My relative privilege has made that impossible. The most I can hope for is empathy… But I know an injustice when it is in front of me.

A view of some of the 27 brightly colored homes that Simply Smiles has built in the barrio within the Oaxaca City garbage dump.

A view of some of the 27 brightly colored homes that Simply Smiles has built in the barrio within the Oaxaca City garbage dump.

I’ve seen newborn babies born into environments completely devoid of hope. I’ve listened to so many stories of hardship, of suffering and of loss that they would be impossible to recount. I’ve felt the bone chilling cold inside a trailer home as a family gathered around an open oven door for warmth. In a garbage dump, where hundreds of people were living, I’ve smelled air so tainted with decomposing trash that it seemed too thick to be inhaled.

Places like Oaxaca, Mexico and the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota fill my senses. And when I first began Simply Smiles, the chemistry of combining overwhelming sights, sounds, smells and touches caused a profound reaction: Fear. 

It was fear that populated my fifth sense as I tasted its tartness in my mouth.

But it wasn’t a fear of physical or emotional harm. Nor was it a fear that I would somehow find myself forced to live and suffer in these places.  

Rather, it was a fear that I wouldn’t have the ability respond to what I was experiencing. It was a fear that I wouldn’t be able to help. I was scared of my position as a conduit between those in need and those who could give. I was petrified that nobody would respond to my stories of the realities on that Indian reservation or in those villages in Mexico.

Since 2003, nearly ten-thousand of you have responded. You’ve given hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours and donated millions of dollars. We’ve laid countless injustices at your feet and your response has been so generous that it sometimes feels unbelievable, like this has all been some kind of inspired dream.

But when I’m in places like this, living with those that Simply Smiles exists to serve, my senses are once again filled as I experience the depth and breadth of the the impact you have had - it’s indeed real, it’s tangible, and it has changed so many lives.

I have to be honest, I’m still scared. When you’re the one who tells the parents; “everything will be alright, we’re going to help you” the fear of not being able to fulfill that promise will always, to some degree, be part of the reality. 

However, that fear is now abated by confidence. A confidence that you provide with each offering of support to Simply Smiles.

We recently received a bright green envelope in the Simply Smiles mailbox. It was ten o’clock at night when I stopped by to pick up the mail, but the green envelope prompted me to open it. Inside there was a check for $1,534.69. The note read: 

Dear friends at Simply Smiles, My husband and I have been very fortunate and have paid off the mortgage on our house! In honor of all you do to provide homes for the people of La Plant, I am sending what I would have paid for my house this month.

I went to bed that night with no fear at all.

With the deepest gratitude,

Bryan

Gratitude in action:  Our donors, volunteers, and many members of the Simply Smiles community make it possible for us to answer the call for safe, new homes. You've provide - and continue to provide! - the physical and metaphorical foundations for housing projects on the Reservation. Thank you! (La Plant, South Dakota, August 2015)

Gratitude in action: Our donors, volunteers, and many members of the Simply Smiles community make it possible for us to answer the call for safe, new homes. You've provide - and continue to provide! - the physical and metaphorical foundations for housing projects on the Reservation. Thank you! (La Plant, South Dakota, August 2015)


Field Notes from Mexico: More progress made in our public health efforts

Alex Gross

This Field Note is brought to you by Simply Smiles Senior Program Manager Zach Gross, who recently returned from our Mexico projects, where we held our third medical testing and fifth treatment of parasitic intestinal worms.


On November 9, I returned home from a fantastic week in Oaxaca, Mexico working with our Mexican staff members and a team of volunteers to carry out our latest medical clinic to treat for intestinal parasites.

I am pleased to report that our latest round of testing shows that the infection rate is now at 20% across this region—down from 48% just two years ago!

Nurse Bernarda Lopez Ordaz helps us to distribute treatment to children in Santa Maria Tepexipana (November 2015)

Nurse Bernarda Lopez Ordaz helps us to distribute treatment to children in Santa Maria Tepexipana (November 2015)

Over the course of three days, 2,173 people from the remote villages of southern Oaxaca came to our food distribution in the town of Santa María Tepexipana and received a month’s supply of food staples. Everyone (except children under age two and nursing or pregnant women) also received a dose of albendazole, which rids the body of intestinal worms and their eggs.

Our method of collecting demographic and qualitative information from participating families allows us to target areas with the highest incidence of intestinal parasites.

Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'Italien tests stool samples to determine the effectiveness of treatment. Gil has spearheaded our approach to eradicating parasitic intestinal worms in the region. (November 2015)

Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'Italien tests stool samples to determine the effectiveness of treatment. Gil has spearheaded our approach to eradicating parasitic intestinal worms in the region. (November 2015)

The infection rate on our final day of testing was 0%—meaning there were no positive samples among children in those villages.

These latest results are certainly encouraging, and they prove that our multifaceted public health initiative is having a directly positive impact on the health of children and families in Oaxaca.

But we still have work to do. A 20% infection rate is not 10%, which the World Health Organization deems the level at which treatment can occur on a case-by-case basis. And it’s not an overall rate of 0% — which is our ultimate goal, so that soil-transmitted intestinal worms are no longer a reality for families in the region.

Until that time, we will continue to treat the entire population. We will also continue working with the local schools to implement health programs, passing out informational literature on methods of prevention, and building more latrines and hand-washing stations—particularly in villages with the highest infection rates.

While the test results are a reliable, scientific method of measuring the impact of this public health initiative, other, more “subjective” methods are perhaps more telling of our overall impact in this region.

As soon as we first visited this remote part of Oaxaca in 2009, we saw the distended bellies, vacant stares, and malnutrition spots — all signs that intestinal parasites were plaguing the children and families there.

Rather than coming in as outsiders with microscopes and pills, we knew that in order to have long-term success in this region, we needed to form friendships first.

We needed to build trust and prove ourselves worthy of that trust and friendship through our actions. Because of these foundational relationships, we can continue to effectively implement all of our initiatives and measure their effectiveness,

Over the past few weeks, we have collected responses from various supporters and friends at our project sites about what Simply Smiles means to them. We asked our friend, Matea Figeuroa Santiaguez, from Santa María to explain how she sees Simply Smiles. She made note of our “humanitarian support,” referring specifically to the our distributions and school construction, but she really focused on the relationships she’s made with Simply Smiles staff and volunteers over the years—on the people behind the projects.

We appreciate all of the people who make this work possible, and we hope to maintain our friendships with those who visit us in this tiny corner of Mexico. We admire everyone we’ve met from different countries, and we in Tepexipana feel so proud to have made so many new friends over the years. We cannot thank everyone enough for all of their support — especially for the personal energy and sacrifice that each volunteer makes just to be with us in our town.
— Matea Figeuroa Santiaguez, resident, Santa Maria Tepexipana

 

The willingness of our volunteers to give up a week of their lives to spend time in Mexico and on the Reservation will never cease to amaze me. Our volunteers are the hands that distribute food & medicine and build latrines in Mexico, but they are also the encouraging role models and friendly faces that solidify the Simply Smiles dignity-first, relationship-based philosophy.


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!

Field Notes from Mexico: Insights from Yoonjong Lee, Choate student and dedicated volunteer

Timothy Nurnberger

At Simply Smiles, we are humbled by the ongoing support and participation of our volunteers. Our volunteers make our trips possible; they strengthen our relationships and partnerships in and among the communities and individuals we serve. Yoonjong "YJ" Lee is one such volunteer. Below, he shares his insights from his second service trip to Oaxaca with his Choate team.

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