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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: Simply Smiles

Big News! Simply Smiles takes a huge step on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation

Zach Gross

In order to expand the work and impact of Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ has leased Simply Smiles just over 8 acres of their land for a term of 99 years!

On this property (adjacent to the Sam D. Horse Community Center property in La Plant, South Dakota on the Reservation, where Simply Smiles currently runs its programming), we will build additional infrastructure that will work in conjunction with the Community Center property.

This expansion will increase our efforts, grow our partnerships, and allow us to work each day to create the smiles that lead to the brightest possible future for the children of Cheyenne River.

A bright future:  Outlined in orange is the 8.04-acre parcel of land, leased to Simply Smiles by the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ on June 1, 2018. To the right, you can see the La Plant Community Center.

A bright future: Outlined in orange is the 8.04-acre parcel of land, leased to Simply Smiles by the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ on June 1, 2018. To the right, you can see the La Plant Community Center.

Simply Smiles has put down our roots in La Plant, South Dakota. This is the town that welcomed us onto the Reservation almost ten years ago. Now, as we solidify our commitment to the Reservation and to Indian Country at large, we also solidify our commitment and our gratitude to the town of La Plant.

As you can imagine, entering into this lease was a lengthy and at times complicated process. We couldn't have done it without an amazing team that worked together for over two years toward a shared vision for Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

A special thank you to:

  • The Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ, Toni Buffalo, and Louie Blue Coat
  • The South Dakota Conference of the United Church of Christ, Rev. Gordon Rankin, and Attorney Bob Frieberg
  • Shipman & Goodwin, Attorney Sarah Westby, and Attorney Dame Catalan
  • Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton and Attorney David Smith
  • The people of La Plant
  • The Congregational Church members who live in La Plant and helped Simply Smiles to connect with, and develop a relationship with, the Dakota Association.
  • Simply Smiles donors and supporters!
Lease signing:  (Left to right): Simply Smiles Garden and Healthy Living Program Manager  Marcella Gilbert ; Simply Smiles Program Manager  Zach Gross ; Simply Smiles President and Founder  Bryan Nurnberger ; Transitional Associate Conference Minister for the Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota Conferences  Gordon Rankin ; Simply Smiles Board Member  Peter Bayers ; and South Dakota Conference Minister Emeritus  David Felton

Lease signing: (Left to right): Simply Smiles Garden and Healthy Living Program Manager Marcella Gilbert; Simply Smiles Program Manager Zach Gross; Simply Smiles President and Founder Bryan Nurnberger; Transitional Associate Conference Minister for the Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota Conferences Gordon Rankin; Simply Smiles Board Member Peter Bayers; and South Dakota Conference Minister Emeritus David Felton


Now, to address a few questions:

This is great news! When will Simply Smiles start developing the land?

In the coming years, Simply Smiles will incrementally add the infrastructure we need to the land. We’ll add utility connections and driveways first, then buildings for storage, housing, program implementation, and more! In the immediate future, you may see a Simply Smiles staff member on the land parcel putting in corner markers and/or a sign.

What about the Sam D. Horse Community Center?

Simply Smiles will continue to use the Community Center as the center of all Simply Smiles does on the Reservation. Because of the generosity of Simply Smiles supporters, volunteers, and our partners on the Reservation, we have invested a lot of energy and funding into make the community center in La Plant what it is today. What we build on the new land will be an expansion of the community center infrastructure we've already built.

You are leasing the land from a church group. Is Simply Smiles still a non-religious organization?

Yes. Simply Smiles is not officially connected to any one religion, faith, or belief system. We want to be able to work with anyone who shares our values and our vision. Remaining independent in this way is a central tenant to Simply Smiles programing being open, available, and feeling comfortable for everyone.

Why did Simply Smiles lease the land and not buy it outright?

We chose to lease the land and not buy it out of respect for the Lakota owners of the land. We wanted to make sure that in all of our actions that Simply Smiles is supporting and giving, not taking anything from the Lakota people. By leasing the property, the land stays in the ownership of Lakota people.

How long is the lease?

Simply Smiles is leasing the land from the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ for a term of 99 years. The lease began on June 1, 2018. Over these years, we will use the land to further the vision and mission of Simply Smiles.

Where is the leased property exactly?

The leased property is 8.04 acres and it lies between the Sam D. Horse Community Center land and Main St. The eastern border is the old Iowa Ave, adjacent to the community center. Access is along the western border on Main St, just south of the Congregational Church entrance.

Is everything with the lease solid legally? Land ownership can be a tricky thing on the Reservation...

Absolutely! The land is deeded/fee/non-trust land and a full year of effort was put into making sure the property was cleanly and legally owned by the Dakota Association and that they had the right to lease the land. The land was platted/surveyed, title checks were run, title insurance was secured, and multiple law firms supported the effort. We then developed a lease that protected both parties. All the legal ducks are neatly in a row making sure the land holding is stable for the next 99 years.

Will there be any Lakota ceremonies performed to bless the land?

We would love your input and help to make sure that before we break ground on the first building that we have honored the traditions and practices for a situation like this.

On June 3, 2018, the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ held a church service and blessing at the Virgin Creek (La Plant) Congregational Church.

On June 3, 2018, the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ held a church service and blessing at the Virgin Creek (La Plant) Congregational Church.

Deepening partnerships:  Bryan Nurnberger (left), Simply Smiles President and Founder and Toni Buffalo (right), Administrator of the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ sign the 99-year lease agreement, allowing Simply Smiles to continue and expand its programming on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota.

Deepening partnerships: Bryan Nurnberger (left), Simply Smiles President and Founder and Toni Buffalo (right), Administrator of the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ sign the 99-year lease agreement, allowing Simply Smiles to continue and expand its programming on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota.


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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.

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)