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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: Monroe

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

Alex Gross

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Now, onto the heavy part of my post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(E. Russell, La Plant, July 2015)

(E. Russell, La Plant, July 2015)


Field Notes from the Reservation: The weight of being present

Alex Gross

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Field Notes from the Reservation: Gradually understanding the place

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is brought to you by Lori Love, who is volunteering with our friends from South Granby and Monroe this week. Read her reflections from the first few days of her experience.

The air is cool at the start of our Monday morning here at the Simply Smiles Community Center. It is surprising how so many people can share a common space, and it is so quiet and peaceful in the early hours of the day. The sun wakes us and most are up and about around 6.

As I wander the grounds, I am mesmerized at the sight of someone on horseback across the way. With the mist rising and the sun beginning to peek through, I watch as the horse and rider slowly make their way to the crest of the hill and stop as if to survey the approaching day. I can’t help but imagine this scene as it would have been 200 years ago and I am sad that this world, their world has changed so much.

It is a great way to start the day with the Walk On program. I am so happy to see Anthony and his grandmother at the track and we all complete our daily mile with the help, of course, of the faithful pack of dogs. It is both fun and scary to watch this devoted pack of dogs escort the big red bus everywhere it goes! 

We are so hungry and happy to get a wonderful breakfast of eggs and potatoes and after the morning chores are ready to tackle our various projects around the center. There are groups working on the archery field and the greenhouse while others work on creating the whimsical pathway that will surround the upcoming playground. Several work on new garden stakes and others create a new buffalo for the herd in the front pasture. A separate group has headed down the road to continue with the finishing touches on the new house. The sun is warm, the birds are singing and everywhere you can hear the sounds of tools and laughter and community. It feels good to be here.

It is amazing how fast the morning slips away and todays lunch features quesadillas. With each main meal, we are finding a lovely salad with Hidden Valley ranch dressing, which we have learned is a town-wide favorite. It is awesome to know that we are enjoying radishes from this garden! It is also really fun to start to get to know all of the different folks here - from Sam and Dave to the interns to our neighbors in Connecticut, and, in doing so, deepening our relationships with our own crew. It is easy to find common ground and to make new friendships that you can already tell will last far beyond our week here.

Knock-out after the town-wide meal! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Knock-out after the town-wide meal! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Last night was our first town-wide meal. It was our first real interaction with most of the residents and they were very gracious and welcoming to us all. It was humbling to hear some of the stories of the struggles of these people and at the end of the evening, I was so hopeful that we would meet again later in this week and hopefully in my future. It felt right to serve the elders first and to be reminded that their path has been so different from mine. A strange feeling to be so happy yet so sad at the same time.

I experienced those same emotions this afternoon as the camp session started. Between the two groups from Connecticut, we had plenty of satisfying projects and games to play. Some children worked in the garden, others played basketball and some read or played games.

Coloring fun! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Coloring fun! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

I made a rainstick with Junior and as we worked together, he had plenty of questions for me about my life. I was deeply saddened by most of his questions as they were mostly based on questions regarding fear and hatred. I answered simply and truthfully and decided that, for today, I would not ask too many questions in return because I simply wanted to hear his thoughts.

Again I was struck by the thought that if this beautiful child had been in one of our Connecticut schools, the system would have been all over it with worry about his emotional state and his situation at home. But who here would care? The Simply Smiles crew. That's who.

We had been warned that some of the children would test us - by acting out or not sharing their true names or seeing how much they could get away with. I found that, with the exception of a few, most of the children were pleased to see us and clamored for attention and piggy back rides. I rode on the big red bus with Alex when she drove the children home and wondered what kind of life went on behind the walls of the homes in the community. I felt sad as I watched two young boys meandering down the road towards nothing, while another group of children who had not come to camp played in an old beat up van.

Back at the center we are relaxing tonight - some residents are here for horseshoes and I got a wonderful lesson in the proper technique from Arlen - he was so nice, and encouraging and I tossed a few good ones! 

Fun with the kids in the garden! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Fun with the kids in the garden! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

I wandered out to the spiders web in the playground - following the sounds of lively conversation from some of the teens. I feel super lucky at how accepted they all make me feel. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset and shared interesting conversation with Anthony. I feel like the teens are a huge influence on him and will help to give him reasons to grow and learn. 

As the evening winds down, folks are scattered about reading, playing cards, chatting about the day. I am looking forward to tomorrow and although we have only been here since Saturday evening, it feels like we have been here for a much longer time. I feel very grateful.