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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: Oaxaca Mexico

Field Notes from Oaxaca: Pushing comfort zones, and when a walk is more than just a walk

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is from Samantha de Lannoy, a recent graduate of Muhlenberg College, who has spent the past few months living and volunteering at the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico! In her thoughtful post, Sam talks about her time at the children’s home. Read more:

Arriving in Oaxaca at Simply Smiles, I was honestly a little overwhelmed. I had never been to Mexico or met most of the people I would be living with, but I was excited. Entering the front gate, I was greeted by the incredibly colorful children’s home and welcomed by four little boys, that I would soon get to know. Before I could even open the car door, they had already grabbed my two ginormous bags and carried them straight to the room that I would be staying in, thus beginning my summer in Oaxaca.

The days and months to follow were packed with fun moments, new experiences, great food, and awesome people. Even as I stumbled through getting used to the vocabulary and utilizing the Spanish that I did know, I constantly felt welcomed. My time here has taught me more than I can put into words, but I will share a little in an attempt to paint a picture of my experience here.

In May, I graduated college, and I left with the question of “what I am going to do with my life?”. While I still do not know, being here has taken me away from that and given me an opportunity to be more present.

One memory that I love occurred on a walk a few weeks ago. Although the children’s home is less than half a mile off the main road, it gets rural fairly quickly. This means long walks filled with wild flowers, waving grasses, picturesque mountain views, and the obvious flock of goats. On this particular walk, picking flowers was the number one priority, with two flower-picking missions simultaneously occurring. Emiliano was only looking for red flowers, which he meticulously picked throughout the walk. Lucia, on the other hand, was frantically yanking every flower in sight—roots and all—before shoving them into my hands and returning to her search.

By the end of the walk, I had, without exaggeration, what looked like a bush of flowers that required both of my hands. Lucia proceeded to throw this mountain of flowers into a repurposed yogurt container, complete with muddy water, which she placed on the table for all to enjoy. Emiliano, meanwhile, had created a small origami box for his red flowers, which he had tied into a cute bouquet and gifted to Gaby.

Both missions were equally endearing, yet completely different. At home, I usually go on walks to clear my mind from whatever chaos is going on, but this walk was just for the purpose of a walk and picking flowers to spread joy.

While being here has given me so many opportunities to think and relax, living in a new country did push me out of my comfort zone. I consider myself a pretty adaptable person, yet living in a different country is a little bit different. The first week felt like I was constantly asking people questions: What is a comal? Why are you drinking café (coffee) before dinner? And while I thought that I knew Spanish fairly well, I quickly realized that I really didn’t, and that I was going to have to learn local vocabulary. I tried to say “yes” to everything, even if I did not always know what I was saying yes to.

Through asking questions, trying new things, and saying “yes”, came so much understanding of not only the language, but culture, as well. I have eaten, played, and learned so many new and amazing things here. While in Oaxaca, I have had so many awesome opportunities to learn and explore. Some of these places include downtown Oaxaca, the local dump community, artisan workshops, Monte Albán, parks, and the movies. At each of these places, I picked up a little bit more knowledge. Heck, even going to Walmart Oaxaca taught me a lot!

While I am still not an expert on Oaxaca, I have learned so much about it. I have enjoyed trying to leave behind preconceived notions, asking why, and experiencing all that is new to me.

There is no simple way to sum up my summer here. I am incredibly fortunate to have been welcomed into this big family and to have had this experience. When I return home, I will be taking back all that I have learned and so many good stories. But, for the few remaining weeks I have left here, I will continue to enjoy the hugs I receive every morning as I walk out of my room and everything else that follows throughout the day.

Field Notes from Oaxaca: Health promotion in action

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is from Colleen Travers, a critical care nurse who has traveled with Simply Smiles on two of our medical clinics and food distributions in the village of Santa María Tepexipana (SMT) in Oaxaca, Mexico. In her thoughtful post, Colleen talks about putting her professional skills to use in a different capacity and witnessing the Simply Smiles approach in action. Read more:

Twice in the last three years, I have been fortunate enough to visit Santa María Tepexipana (SMT), a remote village in Oaxaca, Mexico. Each time, I have left a little piece of my heart with the people and the community there. This past December, after three successful days of a food distribution and medical clinic, as we drove through the winding dirt roads on our way out of town, I felt a sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, and overall purpose. Simply Smiles has allowed me to take part in its parasite eradication efforts and medical clinics, and it has turned out to be an experience far beyond administering medication.

Volunteer and nurse Colleen at the medical clinic and food distribution in Oaxaca in December 2018.

Volunteer and nurse Colleen at the medical clinic and food distribution in Oaxaca in December 2018.

I chose to leave my liberal arts career over a decade ago and pursue nursing, which has given me the opportunity to connect with people and communities. As a pediatric intensive care unit nurse, I have been privileged to care for families and patients in some of the most heartbreaking, as well as some of the most wondrous, parts of their lives. Aside from medical intervention and critical care knowledge, nursing is a gateway to connect with people in times of need and to provide care, education, and assistance when and wherever needed. Simply Smiles has been another path in allowing me to practice nursing in ways that are unconventional to that of my bedside career.

Global health and community health have always been passions of mine. Having been involved in educating nurses in Haiti, and my previous trip to Oaxaca with Simply Smiles, I knew I wanted to get involved again. Simply Smiles’ parasite eradication efforts encapsulate what community health nursing means to me. In community health, medical professionals look to focus on maintaining health, locations where healthcare can be improved, and providing protection in areas that appear vulnerable. Health promotion and disease prevention are key. Simply Smiles’ deworming initiative ties all of these ideas and values together. Simply put, if distributing medication was Simply Smiles’ sole role in intervention, there would be less of an impact on the village community; it would simply function as a band-aid to a much larger problem.

Simply Smiles works to take this to the next level by identifying the needs in Santa María Tepexipana and the surrounding villages, evaluating what can be done, and executing a plan. This has allowed for great success in the prevention and eradication of parasitic infection.

Sustainability is crucial in community health initiatives. In addition to medication administration, Simply Smiles provides long-term support and the resources that allow for eradication efforts to be successful. In addition to giving medicine to treat intestinal parasites, Simply Smiles promotes educating the community to reduce the spread of infection through proper hand-washing and footwear. It has also successfully built 137 latrines that are maintained by local families in remote areas of southern Oaxaca over the last few years.

As a nurse, I greatly appreciate working with an organization like Simply Smiles. In addition to practicing and providing reliable resources, there is a connection with the community in SMT that shines through. The smiles, the excitement, and the warm greetings from the SMT community stand out above all. Upon entering the community we were greeted with open arms. The children were smiling — eager to play and quick to correct my less-than-ideal Spanish grammar. As a returning volunteer, it was fulfilling to see familiar faces and how much the children had grown. The community connects with Simply Smiles and its volunteers and involves us like we are part of their family. This is the thing that stands out the most. When there is already a bond between communities, healthcare providers and relative outsiders like myself are have able to assist and make an impact.

Volunteer and nurse Colleen at the medical clinic and food distribution in Oaxaca in December 2018.

Volunteer and nurse Colleen at the medical clinic and food distribution in Oaxaca in December 2018.

While medical intervention has been the focus of my past visits to Oaxaca, there is so much more to the trips when I reflect on them. For me, they have meant seeing and experiencing a community unlike any that I would find in Boston (where I come from) or North Carolina (where I currently reside). These trips have allowed me the opportunity to open up to a new community that can provide new ways of looking at healthcare. They have allowed me, as a nurse, to understand the importance of access and reliability. And overall, they have opened the doors for me to connect with more people in an amazing place. I remain changed by the people and community of SMT and Simply Smiles both personally and professionally. Experiences like this one enable me to approach nursing and living with new perspective. I am ever grateful to Simply Smiles for involving me in such an important project.

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.