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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!

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Fields Notes from Oaxaca: When the place dictates the pace, process

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is from our friend Emma Russell, an educator and an invaluable member of the Simply Smiles community. She has spent many summers on our project on the Cheyenne River Reservation and began her volunteer experience with us at our Mexico initiatives in their early years. Below, she gives an update on our Children's Home in Oaxaca, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles, where she is currently helping to get the children ready for the upcoming school year!


Something that has breached my thoughts quite a bit since being here in Oaxaca is the idea of individual past experiences and how much they inform the way we experience new things. You, the reader, have a multitude of your own experiences that have shaped your current perceptions, and whether you are cognizant of it or not, what you take away from my thoughts here—assumptions you may or may not make—will be formed inevitably by those that have formed you. The way I chose to construct and share my experiences so far in Oaxaca are informed greatly by where and what I have come from. The cycle continues. These reasons are why I am always so overwhelmed by the task of writing posts for Simply Smiles. Painting a picture that includes so many different narratives and reaches so many varied minds is a heavy task. Yet, here I am, writing my second ever reflection on the subject, trying, again, to respectfully and thoughtfully share a story that includes the complicated stories of others not mine to share but inexorably intertwined with my experience.

Emma and some of the first residents of our children's home, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles! (July 2016)

Emma and some of the first residents of our children's home, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles! (July 2016)

I have spent the past several weeks teaching and working with some of the first young children of Casa Hogar Simply Smiles. It’s been awesome to watch these kids tackle new concepts and ideas and just plain get excited about learning. Where their background limits them, it also aids them with a tenacity and curiosity that transcends unfamiliar ideas and concepts and pushes them consistently into a new realm of thinking. When I previously said “limits”, what I really meant was that my choices as an educator needed to be altered. I believe that you need to meet children where they are and foster in them the tools they need to succeed in the future. That is your job as a teacher: recognize where they are and help them grow from there. This is my job currently in Oaxaca, but it took some initial mistakes to remind me of this.

For example, Gaby and I went on a serious book hunt recently to find two copies of the same book for Susana (9) and Emiliano (7) to use for some guided reading structured lessons. We chose one of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” stories (although in Spanish they are just “Diario de Greg”). We chose this first because it was the only somewhat developmentally appropriate book choice for a seven- and nine-year-old to read together that the store had two copies of, and two, I thought the fact that it was from a child’s point of view and had some simple sketches to accompany the words might make it a more relatable and accessible text.

I failed to think about how the concepts in the book—the family staying in multiple hotels, visiting a fair, deciding which restaurants to eat in, having too many belongings packed for the trip to fit into one car, and arguing over what to do about the father’s speedboat—would make connecting with this text challenging for them. I was expecting them to understand character motivation for a family conflict when the center of that conflict was a new speedboat and how it would take away from “family time”—so many concepts of which were foreign to them. I expected them, also, to sympathize with Greg, a character their age, when he has to share one hotel room with his whole family for a night. Their current reality is residing in a room with seven other children and it's awesome. 

Reading time! (July 2016)

Reading time! (July 2016)

My expectations were unrealistic. I failed to meet these kids where they were at and my lessons did not go as planned.

Although not impossible to teach, this book has served as a reminder for me on how important it is to remain conscious of what context and foundation students possess and what perceptions may be influencing my choices as an educator. One other thing I have recognized is just how communal we are in the fundamental nature of being a human child. Telling a seven-year-old who grew up in a satellite mountain village of Oaxaca that you are proud of them and the work they have done elicits the same genuine smile and motivates just as well as it does in on the Reservation, in Connecticut, Philadelphia (where I went to school and started teaching), or anywhere else. 

Similarly, songs, games, creativity and anything that captures the innate curiosity of children will always encourage organic learning—whether the learning is in a homemade bodega classroom in Oaxaca, a community center on the Cheyenne River Reservation, or a fully stocked, state-of-the-art, public school classroom in my hometown of Essex, CT.

This translates into what motivates us as adults as well—dignity, hope, love, and support from those around us.

I think this educational realization can serve as a metaphor for Simply Smiles and the experiences that accompany it. We are all trying our best—staff, volunteers, children of Casa Hogar, community members and friends on the Cheyenne River Reservation—to meet the other where he/she exists in this present moment and move forward together. We do this all while working hard to not be informed or limited by the past but rather focus on the now that is spent in partnership and the gaping potential of what we may accomplish together. It is incredible… and I continue to be amazed by the new, positive perceptions we have already formed by working together towards a brighter collaborative future. Of course, I have experienced this mostly on the Rez, and, specifically in La Plant, but after two short months, I am beginning to recognize it here as well. 

The children enjoy a good book and a good giggle at our children's home, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles! (August 2016)

The children enjoy a good book and a good giggle at our children's home, Casa Hogar Simply Smiles! (August 2016)

Seven years ago, I stood on the dirt road right outside where I currently reside in Oaxaca and stared into an empty lot of overgrown grass as Bryan explained the vision for our very own Simply Smiles children’s home. Today, I sit in the office of Casa Hogar Simply Smiles (on that same property) and I can hear those first resident children laughing and playing below my window as I write. I write about not so much the countless hours spent of academic skills we are working to develop, but rather, about how a nine-, seven-, and four-year-old have encouraged me yet again to see the world in a different way. 

And I thought I was the teacher.

Field Notes from the Reservation: First Church of Stamford, take two!

Alex Gross

We often say one of the most challenging elements of volunteering at our project sites is how to best articulate all of the things that happen over the course of day and to share these occurrences with friends and loved ones back home. While we do follow a schedule and have plans for the week, there are a number of events - small or large - that can make the volunteer experience even more memorable. In this Field Note, our friends from the First Congregational Church of Stamford, Connecticut try their hand at describing parts or reflections from their days, with snippets from numerous volunteer perspectives! We're happy to have the Stamford crew back on the Reservation this week - their second volunteer experience with us!


No rest for the weary! It's right to work on Sunday for our Stamford friends, including pellet shed construction ! (La Plant, August 2016)

No rest for the weary! It's right to work on Sunday for our Stamford friends, including pellet shed construction ! (La Plant, August 2016)

"Yesterday was the 'lazy Sunday' here in La Plant, although the definition of lazy out here must be different from what we are used to because, by the end of the day, I think we were all feeling exhausted and ready for a good night's rest. We were privileged to be given an amazing tour by Sam, who so eloquently spoke about the reality of life in this town and on the Reservation. It is something hard to put into words and yet she did it so well, I know that I wished that I could have recorded her and played it back so that when asked what it is like here I could have her words inspire everyone like they did me. She said that it is 'tangible hopelessness' and yet come time for the town wide dinner at the end of the day I felt as though it had shifted in just a year's time to become a tangible hope. More people attended the community dinner than I had seen attend any single event last year. Children grabbed our hands and pulled us to the playground. I can remember last year beginning the process of building the playground. Digging the holes that would be foundation for the swingset and building the rock wall. It’s amazing how it has become the center for the children's play and an icebreaker for people of all ages. Here's to more play to come." ­ - Emma Jelliffe

Pillow-making fun at camp! (La Plant, August 2016)

Pillow-making fun at camp! (La Plant, August 2016)

"Positivity encourages progress. Something as small as watching my cousin push a child on a swing are drastic changes for the Lakota people. Last year, it would have taken days for them to be comfortable to be around us in such a way. To see them so open to the new people this year is truly a sight to behold. Anyone from the trip last year can attest to this. But my favorite part of the day was watching my grandmother. Yes, the leader of the group and one of the older members, years do not apply to her. I watched her conversate with the good Lakota people of La Plant whether in their cars or on a bench she asked about their lives and how things have changed. She followed the children to the playground, or 'park' as they love to call it, and pushed them on swings. She even climbed to the top of the climbing wall and watched the youth of La Plant, the sun go down. And there sitting beside her I noticed an amazing thing. A boy we had previously met before who bluntly called people names and swore and cursed at my grandmother was now beside her laughing and holding her hand. What a great change this place has hope! What great change, this place has promise. What great change this place has a future." ­ - Shanika Bello

Learning about horses - and taking a spin! - at camp on Monday! (La Plant, August 2016)

Learning about horses - and taking a spin! - at camp on Monday! (La Plant, August 2016)

"Coffee tastes good this morning with the wind blowing across the extraordinary land. Sleep came easily last night after a busy day painting the ceilings in the two new houses being built this summer. The town wide dinner was so well attended ­ lots of children enjoying the playground constructed last summer. How much fun to watch the teenage boys and girls playing a competitive game of basketball ­ the girls are amazing. I am honored to be here again this year. ­  

"Monday was a productive day of flooring, painting, molding, stucco, taping. Camp was fantastic: 37 pillows made, drawing, friendship bracelets, basketball, playground, music camp. A friend brought his horses for the kids to ride. Evening brought heat lightning to light up the massive sky, followed by thunder and rain and cooler night temps. A great day!" - ­ Leslie Loop

Intense puzzle piecing and getting crafty at camp!

Intense puzzle piecing and getting crafty at camp!

"Good afternoon in camp. Quality time with master puzzle maker and budding artist!"­ - Bob Loop

"As we stood outside doing the dishes from last night's dinner we were privileged to witness the most spectacular sunsets, absolutely jaw dropping. Life has a way of restoring your soul, of giving you what you need if you simply stay open to it! Another highlight of the day was riding a horse!!" -­ John Jelliffe

Field Notes from the Reservation: Day one - latrine hole digging, ultimate basketball, and having "a hoot and a half"

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is brought to you by volunteers Amber Heil, Kayla Skaletski, and Cassie Van Buren, students from the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point. Below, they describe their first full day (Sunday) in La Plant, full of work projects and meeting the people in town.

Greetings from South Dakota!

Today was a fun-filled day of work and excitement. The first thing on our agenda was a tour of the community and the community center. Sam gave us a lot of information regarding the historical perspectives of the Lakota and locations of the possible work activities we will be helping with throughout the week. After lunch, we chose what activities we wanted to participate in today and went our separate ways. Some of us helped repair broken latches on doors (damaged by South Dakota wind), others painted signs for the garden shed, a couple of us helped to build bunkbeds for all the interns coming this summer, some helped prepare for the community dinner that was held this evening, some organized the craft supplies for camp this week, and the lucky ones helped to start the process of moving the latrines.

The UWSP crew starts building bunk beds!

The UWSP crew starts building bunk beds!

One thing we learned was to not dig too deep around the latrines or you will break the seal and may not like the smell. 

After our work duties, we all helped to set up for the community dinner. We had the opportunity to ride on the bus and pick up community members for the dinner. Everybody was excited for the mac and cheese that was prepared. After dinner, the elders and people that didn’t want to get wet stayed in and talked or played games and everyone else went outside for a game of ultimate basketball. 

Some of us volunteers and some of the kids went outside to play basketball, which was awesome! We couldn't believe how good the kids were! It was so fun. 

It has been a long time since any of us have played in the rain. We were drenched but we had a hoot and a half. We can’t wait for tomorrow to have the first day of camp with the kids!

My first week on the Reservation

Timothy Nurnberger

Last Saturday, Bryan and I flew west to start our week on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, my first opportunity to visit La Plant. I have heard endless stories, seen thousands of pictures, and listened to the Fleet Foxes song that plays over the beautiful Reservation Volunteer Season video countless times now, yet I still had no idea what my week on the Rez would bring.

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Witness: Final Reflections from the Reservation, Summer 2012

Timothy Nurnberger

This summer, we spent almost three months working, living, eating, crying, and laughing in this community – a community that, even though it is physically located in the domestic United States, is a sovereign third-world country inhabited by a people systematically annihilated since the spread of Manifest Destiny.

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August Update from the Reservation

Timothy Nurnberger

Hi all! We are nearing the end of an absolutely tremendous summer on the Reservation, but we still have two more groups coming who are going to do some serious hard work. I'm writing to you from Fran and Ed Graves (Kristen's parents)'s lovely Green Bay home, where the Reservation crew is taking a few days off from rebuilding the La Plant community center, leading summer camps for 40 kids aged 2-14, driving our big red bus, doing home construction and repair, and serving community meals to over 85 people. I apologize for not updating as often as I should have - in a story that I will elaborate on in a bit, we haven't had Internet or very much electricity in the community center since the ceiling collapsed. So, here I am, attempting to summarize a truly incredible summer in a short blog post, which I hope will convey just a bit of the inspiring work our volunteers have done these past eight weeks. It's hard to even think back to the beginning of the summer, because it seems like forever ago - and, to put it in perspective, eight weeks flies here. In the time we've been on the Reservation, we've hosted 24 community meals, worked on three huge home construction projects, played for 40 days of summer camp, and worked with 6 AWESOME groups of volunteers. It it so humbling to think about all of the time, effort, and sacrifice that has happened on the part of our volunteers, and the hard work and fun times that have been had.

So, the community center. While the roof didn't ACTUALLY collapse (don't worry, things aren't THAT dramatic around here), we did help it a bit to come down. During the re-roofing that Kristen wrote about in her last blog post, we realized that the ceiling and walls of the community center in La Plant weren't living up to the standard of excellence that the roof was conveying. So, our volunteers bravely donned masks, gloves, and goggles to begin a deconstruction project (a fun change from the usual construction projects). We tore down the ceiling and

walls, removed all of the gross mousey insulation, and the community center is now down to its bare stud bones. We have big plans for its renovation, including beautiful wood paneling and Josh (our photographer and BFF)'s portraits of the kids on the Reservation. It's very exciting living on a construction site, but Gaby might say differently, as she was without a kitchen for the better part of last week. Now, our kitchen is all plugged in, we have full electrical and Internet capabilities, and we await the next group with high hopes for the building. We're also making great progress with our other projects, winterizing and renovating trailer homes. Commando-crawling under a trailer was not something I expected to do with my college degree, nor was it something I thought I would enjoy. However, if anyone needs someone to drag heavy plastic sheeting and spread it neatly in a 10'x100' patch of dirt with 2' of crawling space, you've got your girl - I loved it! And the groups did too, overcoming fears and really ratcheting up their awesomeness in the process.Another really cool and exciting update about the summer is the overall community feeling here. Last summer, one of the struggles that the Simply Smiles staff faced was the town-wide meal. Getting people to attend was a struggle, but the staff really believed that perseverance was the way to go, and so they pushed through to provide meals all summer. This year, we decided to triple our efforts, increasing the meals from one a week to THREE meals a week, and this seems to have been the key. On our last community meal on Friday, we served stuffed fry bread (a Lakota favorite) and cherry wojapi (MY favorite). We had over 100 people from town attend, eat, talk and catch up with each other under the pole barn. They've played huge town-wide games of baseball, met volunteers from all over the country (and the world!), and ate some really delicious food prepared by the unstoppable Gaby.

We've also had the honor this summer of being the audience for traditional Lakota drumming. Some of our friends on the Reservation have worked hard to preserve the musical culture of the Lakota, and we are lucky enough to be invited to hear it. We were also so, so lucky to, when the old drum was taken from La Plant, to receive enough donations in just a few hours to buy a brand new drum for the community. It is made of a hollowed out cottonwood tree and tanned buffalo hide and sounds amazing - the booming sound, we're told, is because the hair is still intact on the inside of the buffalo skin. Christiana painted the town's name on the surface of the drum and a medicine wheel, completed by the outline of Bryan's hand and the Simply Smiles colors. What an honor to be remembered in this way! Truly humbling.

Next week, our Mixed Group is arriving in La Plant for a week of hard work and strong friendships. Afterward, we look forward to the group from Woodmont Congregational Church to help us wrap up the summer. It's going to be an awesome few weeks; I can't wait.

Until next time,

Haley

 

An Update from Oaxaca

Timothy Nurnberger

Hi, friends! This is Zach in Oaxaca with an update about our projects from the past two weeks. We recently had some Internet issues so were unable to post for a while, but things have been resolved. We just enjoyed a few days of rest before the next group arrives on Saturday, and today we’re heading off to Santa María in order to host a staff-organized community meal in a neighboring village called San Mateo. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s start where our last Oaxaca blog post left off... The students and teachers from St. Luke’s School and Rangitoto College fought through sickness to finish bagging and distributing the 12 tons of food for this summer’s first despensa. Amazingly, the men from Santa María (who were finishing the bamboo walls on our palapa) realized that we were not 100% health-wise and pitched in to unload the majority of the food from our Ford truck. The despensa went smoothly, and our dedicated volunteers--with smiles on their faces--handed out food to over 2,000 people.

In Huatulco, we bid adieu to our friends from New Canaan and New Zealand, and then headed right back to Oaxaca to meet the volunteers from our first mixed group of the summer. Along the way, we picked up Ana Cristina and Mari Cruz, two of our teenage friends from the village, to spend a few days in Oaxaca with us. Their joking and laughter were an excellent addition to an already great group.

In three short work days, our volunteers put a second coat of paint on all of our bunk beds (which will prevent any chance of bedbugs in the future), finished painting the entire back wall to the Center of Operations, bagged 600 servings of sugar for the next food distribution, and helped install hundreds of adoquín pavers. Steve and Peter, Emma’s dad and uncle, also worked furiously to make a brand new display sign for Santa María, which looks great:

We’ll now be able to post signs for upcoming community meals, despensas, and movie nights.

Last week, we were unable to go to Casa Hogar because the kids were all on vacation at the beach, but we did manage to do something equally as rewarding: we took a group of kids from the dump community to the park for an afternoon of food, fun, and games. At first the kids were reticent, but after we opened up the bag of soccer balls, screaming balloons, and bracelet-making supplies, there was nonstop laughter. I made a fool of myself by trying to be a goalie, naturally. I was also able to put my years of experience as a counselor to good use when I taught some of the kids how to make lanyards. (They didn’t lose interest once...NOT.) The trip was such a success that we’ll now incorporate it into our schedule every week. It’s a fantastic way to deepen our relationship with our friends from the dump community, AND it’s so fun!

Our time in Santa María last week consisted of preparing for the community meal Thursday afternoon and night, we helped Lula and a group of other women from town chop a mound of onions and garlic. We did not participate in the killing of the chickens that were used for the chicken soup, but some of us did watch with morbid fascination...only the freshest ingredients for our community meals! I stayed up late on Thursday night because of my immense muscle strength: I helped to carry a tremendously heavy pot of tomatoes down into the center of town, through a river, and up a rocky staircase to Juan’s grandparents’ home, where the only large grinding machine is located. The machine is NOT fast, but I was delighted to sit up with Lula, Elute, Vero, and abuelita to wait for the tomatoes to be ground into a delicious purée for the soup. On Friday we served over 300 people from the community a delicious and hearty meal. After we cleaned up from the meal, we finished the week out with a bang and started hauling heavy bags of river sand up the hill so that the next group will be ready to pour the floor for our new kitchen area!

I say this often during nighttime reflections, but I feel so lucky to be able to go to Santa María Tepexipana as often as I do. I never imagined that my life would lead me to a tiny village in the jungles of Mexico, where I could communicate with others in Spanish and feel totally comfortable among people who were once strangers. Sam and I have talked about how much our relationships have grown with the people of Santa María in the past two years, and it truly is amazing. We now talk to and joke with them as we would with any of our friends.

(The next step is to become fluent in Zapotec; Ana Cristina has been giving me some of her worksheets from elementary school to copy. I can say such helpful sentences as: The tiger is bad [le mbex cap nac], and the gringos are tall [le ngrig naro].)

Sadly, I must leave Mexico on Saturday for a brief stint in the office in Connecticut for a few weeks, but I’ll be heading out to the Reservation on August 11, about which I’m super excited. But Sam and Emma will keep up the blogging from Mexico!

Hasta luego!

Two Thumbs Up from Oaxaca

Timothy Nurnberger

Hi friends and family, this is Lexi, Alice, Mel, Tash, and Thomas. This blog update is being posted Thursday, but we’re writing this on Tuesday night because we are heading off to the jungle early in the morning! Tuesday we all participated in many jobs that needed to be finished around the Center of Operations. We did jobs like painting the walls, helping lay down the adoquín (outside brick pavers), and painting bunks :)

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After lunch we went to the Zapotec ruins on top of a mountain; it was awesome! The views were incredible and the ruins were in amazing condition. The climb was pretty hard, as we were at 6000 feet above sea level, but it was totally worth it. Next we went to a pottery market called Doña Rosa, which was full of hundreds of beautiful pottery pieces (and don’t worry we bought you all some presents!) The pottery was made of local black clay, and glazed with quartz.

Then we went to an open air market, which also had black pottery, as well as some really interesting trinkets. The best part of our fantastic day was going to an authentic Mexican restaurant. We had five courses, and each one was better than the one before!

Finally we headed home to pack our bags again for our big day tomorrow! We will be getting up super early to get to the jungle, so we better head off to bed!

“Two Thumbs Up” From Lexi!

Adios Amigos

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All in a (Tues)day's work! Volunteers reflect from Oaxaca.

Timothy Nurnberger

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Eliot, Ben, Khush and Mia reflecting: Yesterday was a physically and mentally challenging day. We woke up to pancakes and Mexican sausages for breakfast that fueled us for the day. The day’s work involved groups bagging sugar, salt and beans, preparing adoquin for tiling, painting the outer wall and sifting sand. As you may have guessed, by the end of the day we were all pretty tired so we had a rest before we went on our trip to the local rubbish dump.

For all of us the visit to the rubbish dump was a very emotional and moving experience. We got to witness first-hand the conditions many Oaxacans have to live under. Edith, a friend of Simply Smiles and also our sandwich maker, invited us into her home to show us what living in the dump looks like. Her home is one of the 27 houses built by Simply Smiles in the dump but despite the “luxury” of her living conditions, we were all still left in utter shock. Edith’s home is one of the nicest ones in the dump and yet there are flies swarming the rooms and there is filth all throughout the couch. None of us could ever imagine living in such conditions. However Edith and her family had such pride in their home and expressed it with smiles that we readily returned and respected.

Upon leaving Edith’s home we held her hand to show our appreciation in her willingness to show us her home and were then showed around the rest of the dump. Sam and Pete led us all to the top of the garbage/dirt hill. It was terrifying to imagine living in such an environment every day. At the top, Sam told us a story about when Brian (the founder) and Kristen tried to spend a day with the families they knew in the dump, trying to work with them. They were the toughest of people, but even they couldn’t last an hour without puking and almost fainting. These were the condition that these men, women, and children survived in. We listened in shock as we heard the stories of the failed attempts by the government to help these families, and the corruption in the area. A single broken conveyor belt ended these attempts by the government to help. Despite all these difficult stories, many of us left with a bit of optimism as we watched kids screaming and laughing. It was uplifting to see happiness in such difficult condition.

We ended our day on a happy note, as well. All of the New Zealand and Connecticut kids sat together to play games and joke around.

All in all, our day was emotional and difficult, but also inspiring.

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Volunteer Blog from Oaxaca

Timothy Nurnberger

Hi friends and family, this is Kate, Sarah, Ana, Logan; Monday morning kitchen crew. We just prepared over 75 pancakes for the students and staff!

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Yesterday started off with painting over graffiti on the outside walls of the Center of Operations buildings. For the New Zealanders, who have just left winter, the sun and humidity was a different experience. Other students bagged rice into thousands of small bags for the food distribution or ‘despensa’ on Friday. In the afternoon, we were lucky enough to visit the Casa Hogar Childrens Orphanage. Here, 30% of the Mexican children are disabled and all children were left or abandoned by their parents. It was empowering to see how these children, who have so little possessions, could make their own fun. We drew pictures, played noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe, for you Americans), tag, and made bracelets with different children. For those students who speak Spanish, it was a good opportunity to practice simple phrases like ‘¿cómo te llamas? and ¿cuántos años tienes?’. We spent time with children in wheelchairs and a deaf boy, Vicente, who enjoyed positioning us perfectly before taking numerous photos of us in various locations in the orphanage.

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It was nice to communicate with the disabled children and make them smile with something as simple as paper aeroplanes! We also served hot dogs and Doritos to the children, and we could all see the joy in their faces as we handed them their dinner. Last night, we reflected as a group on our experiences which helped us bond as a group. Overall it was a powerful experience which we will remember for a long time.

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Generación Simplemente Sonrisas

Timothy Nurnberger

Hello again from Oaxaca, Sam here, after my first full week in Mexico with Pete, Emma and Zach. We have had quite the busy week getting ready at our Center of Operations, and we just got back from Santa Maria Tepexipana. There, we cleaned up our campsite as much as we could after the hurricane swept through two weeks ago, and I was able to catch up with old friends who I haven’t seen since last August.

On our way down to the jungle, we stopped at Pedro and Maria’s alebrijes store, and were served Maria’s delicious scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions, with beans and her corn tortillas on the side--a meal I have been reminiscing about since August. Also, the last time we stopped for a meal at Pedro and Maria’s at the end of last summer, Maria told me that she was pretty sure her son was going to name his newborn baby girl after me, because of all the joy we (the Simply Smiles staff and volunteers) bring to the world. Obviously, this nearly made me die with happiness, only to find out yesterday that they decided to name her Eileen instead. Samantha really doesn’t sound great in Spanish, I will give them that, and I guess being runner up to having a baby girl named after you isn’t too bad, but it was still a bit of a letdown.

Anyway, after the rest of the six hour drive, we finally reached Santa Maria. It   was scorching hot, so even taking the first trip up to our campsite was tiring.   However, we found Juan, Elute, Javier, and a few other men from the town   helping to rebuild our palapa that the hurricane knocked down, so bringing our supplies up the hill seemed a tad less difficult. The heat in Santa Maria always surprises me the first time I go each summer, so as Zach, Emma, Pete and I continued our trips up the hill, I couldn’t help but think of a letter that Mahelet, my ten year old sister, sent me last year during my internship in Mexico. She drew a picture of me holding a basketball, sweating profusely, with the caption: “Hard workers sweat, just like you. I miss you!” Even though it was the most ridiculous, back-handed compliment I have ever received, it did win a few laughs, and to this day it is tacked up in the Center of Operations down here in Oaxaca, just so everyone knows that I am a hard worker. Albeit a little embarrassing, thinking about it made the trips go by a bit faster.

After we tidied up and finished securing the bunk-beds in our new dorm, we went down to say “hi” to all our friends in the center of the village. I saw Ana Cristina and Mari Cruz-- two of my closest friends from last year who are a few of the sweetest, hardest working girls I have ever met. I saw Pinque, Martin’s puppy that has grown 20 times its original size since we gave her to him last August, and I was able to sit down and talk to Cristobalina, Ana Cristina’s mom; Carina, Mari Cruz’s sister in law; and later Matea and Don Aron, Mari Cruz’s parents.

On my very last night in the jungle last August, Haley and I went to say good bye to Cristabolina and Matea, and ended up staying in their home for almost an hour just talking about the summer, sharing words of thanks, and laughing about all the good times we had together over the past few years since Simply Smiles started working in Santa Maria. When I came back to Cristabolina’s home, it seemed like just last week that I had said goodbye.Zach, Emma and I talked to Don Arón about how nice it is to be able to converse in a common language, and we talked with Cristobalina about the upcoming preschool and primary school graduations, and she brought out the program for us to see. She took it out of its plastic cover, handed it to us, and I almost started crying on the spot: Santa Maria Tepexipana named the pre-school graduation class, “Generación Simplemente Sonrisas,” or “Generation Simply Smiles.” After just three years of being in this village, we have been able to have such a big impact on this community. Not only have we made lasting friends, they believe in our ability, as a Simply Smiles community, to change the lives of their youngest children, so that they can fulfill their dreams. This is our true goal. With every penny we raise we hope to strengthen the communities we work in while focusing on building friendships. We care about the smiles we create, we care about the futures we build, and it is obvious that we are successful. Through seeing this project grow over the last three years, I can’t describe how amazing it is to be such good friends with the families in town, to find kids and adults (who were originally very shy and reserved) warm up to us all and bring us into their homes to chat like old friends, and finally, for them to name a pre-school graduating class to all of us. I cannot wait to see what “Generation Simply Smiles” is capable of, and how Santa Maria Tepexipana will continue to grow stronger in the future.

Another update soon about the St. Luke’s and Rangatoto group that arrives tomorrow!

Until then,

Sam

First Update from Oaxaca

Timothy Nurnberger

Hola from Oaxaca! This is Emma, Sam, and Zach checking in from our Center of Operations to let you know how our pre-season group preparation is coming along. Our updates are not quite as exciting as a cross-country trip in the #bigredbus, but we did journey into the jungle for a bit...so take that, South Dakota crew!

Last week started out with some manual labor, as we helped our maestros level the ground for the new adoquín outdoor tile, which the first groups of the summer will lay down. (The maestros did the majority of the work, we just hauled away some dirt for a while.)

The week has been filled with many shopping trips to make sure our volunteers have everything they need during their time here. Yesterday we finished buying all of the non-perishables for the first few groups. Behold the well-stocked shelves in our kitchen:

After Hurricane Carlotta hit the southern Mexican coast at the end of last week, we wanted to check in with our friends in Santa María to assess the damage. We departed Thursday and spent two days there. We saw lots of fallen trees, but for the most part, families are finding ways to rebuild after the storm. Fortunately, no one was injured.

While we were there, we took some time to organize the new dormitory, and spent time visiting with friends. We even saw one of the puppies that we brought to our friends in the jungle last summer. Pinqui (Pinky) loves his new owner, Martín:

We also helped Elute and Javier lift three 200-kilo logs that will be used as horcones (wooden posts) to add extra support to the new palapa thatched-roof despensa building.  It was literally one of the heaviest things we’d ever lifted:

The despensa on July 6 with the group from St. Luke’s School and Rangitoto College in New Zealand will be great!

We’re also VERY excited that we have secured the land to build the new junior high school in Santa María. There will be no shortage of work for volunteers over the next few weeks!

We look forward to going back to Santa María on Thursday to make some final preparations for the group’s arrival. We’ll check back with updates soon!

The #bigredbus Arrives in La Plant

Timothy Nurnberger

Hello, loyal bloggers! Today I'm writing to you from the Rapid City airport, waiting on my flight back to Connecticut. Unfortunately, today I head back to CT for two weeks to take care of some general office work before going back to La Plant and the Cheyenne River Sioux Valley Reservation. We arrived in La Plant on Monday afternoon and it has been a heck of a few days. The first thing we did upon arrival was look at the area. As this was my first time on the Reservation, I needed a pretty in-depth tour. The landscape of La Plant is pretty spectacular: rolling fields as far as the eye can see, dotted by the occasional house, barn, and herd of cattle. As soon as we crossed the Missouri River, which is the dividing line between the Reservation and South Dakota proper, we stopped for a quick dip in the river and a discussion of what the week would have in store for us. Over an hour of driving later, we arrived at the community center in La Plant to begin our tremendous summer.

We arrived and were quickly greeted by some of our friends. When we went up to town to get a key for our water spigot, about 15 kids ran out of their houses to meet us. With permission, they climbed into the back of the truck to come back to the community center with us - a huge change in their relationship with us since last summer, when we struggled for trust with the children at camp. They laughed and climbed into the truck, all yelling with excitement, as we drove back to the center with some strong helping hands.

The first major task at hand was to unload the bus, and this was not a small job. It took the five of us (Bryan, Josh, Haley, Gaby, and Christiana) plus about 15 helpful kids several hours to unload all of the awesome donations. The kids, of course, took periodic breaks to play with the water squirters (to the great dismay of Chip and Maddie... and Josh) and to ask, "What's in this box? What's in here?" They're really pumped for all of the summer camp stuff, and all of the clothing and blanket donations we put in storage to be given out at Christmas and other exciting times of the year.

The kids absolutely LOVE the bus as well. As soon as they came to visit us, they were jumping on it, playing with the door, and running up and down the aisles. Unfortunately, that curious nature quickly led them to the horn, which honked ceaselessly for about an hour. To bring them home that night, Bryan explained the rules of the bus and gave the kids their first ride on the #bigredbus. They all listened to the rules, and kept asking when camp was going to start so that they could be picked up again. Looks like Operation Big Red Bus was a success!

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photo8786

Yesterday was spent readying the community center for our first set of volunteers - East Haddam Congregational Church, who arrive on Saturday. We cleaned the building from top to bottom, emptied out an old storage room that was stacked floor-to-ceiling with old boxes and mouse nests, and mowed and weed whacked the lawn. We also went to measure for the first construction project of the summer: roofing! An inventory was made of all of our food and supplies and today, while I sit in airports, Bryan, Josh, Christiana, and Gaby will be on a huge shopping trip for food, construction materials, and, of course, dog food. We also picked up our other truck and trailer to haul everything that gets bought today back to the Reservation.

As you can see, we've been busy over here! We're really excited to get started with the first round of volunteers; we have a lot of really awesome stuff in store. Building projects, summer camps, THREE community meals a week plus a movie night - things are all falling into place for the summer of the #bigredbus.

Have a great week, everyone! I'm looking forward to getting back to the Reservation the first week of July. Until then, keep looking for updates on the first two groups and be sure to look for pictures on our Facebook page!

Your loyal blogger,

Haley

#bigredbus - The Bus Chronicles, Pt 2

Timothy Nurnberger

The title of this post should really be "Misawaka, IN and Other Things that Are Surprisingly Unsafe", but for the sake of consistency I'll keep with the "Chronicles".

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photo-3

This morning, I'm writing from a lovely motel in Granger, IN, right outside of South Bend and Notre Dame's campus. Yesterday was... an adventure, to say the least. It started fairly normally: continental breakfast, make-your-own waffles, Fox News, and an innocuous drive through the rest of Pennsylvania and into Ohio. We stopped at what may or may not be the World's Largest Truck Stop around noon and had our first taste of real trucker culture. This place looked like a full-sized shopping mall that catered to all trucking needs: they sold practical trucking equipment like floor mats and spare lights, as well as some less practical items of the chrome-nude-woman variety and the inappropriate-body-part-for-your-trailer-hitch variety. We stopped for lunch once we hit Ohio, Chip and Maddie made a dog friend, and we continued for Indiana with a motel plan and determination under our belts.

That's when the fun started, but first, let me give you a sneak peek at life on the #bigredbus (the hashtag is for our Twitter fans).

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photo-5

Contrary to popular belief, because we have so many donations (which is awesome), there is not a lot of room in the 48 seats for the bus's passengers. With 5 adults and 2 rambunctious dogs, it's a bit of a squeeze, especially since the dogs we have like to cuddle. Here's an example of Gaby with Chip:

Chip likes to cuddle, as you can tell. There's also no air conditioning on the bus, so the puppy puddles of love get a little sweaty after awhile. And, by cruising at a maximum speed of 55mph (although we DID hit 56 that one time down a hill!), this cramped, hot, #bigredbus really rivals those big mansion RVs who've been passing us.

But now onto the good stuff. We stopped for then night at a motel that will not be named in Misawaka, IN. Let me paint a picture of Misawaka for you: about 5 miles down the highway, Misawaka, IN sports a Taco Bell, a Burger King, a Hollywood Video, and a 1970's ghost-town diner called Cafe Curve. We walked into our hotel, through what appeared to be renovation construction, with high hopes. Josh even said of the orange safety cones and dirt parking lot, "Oh good! It's new!"

How wrong he was.

Apart from the exposed wiring and the lack of motion sensor in the elevator that almost led to Bryan's flattening, when we opened the doors to our rooms, it was like something from a bad horror movie. Ancient wooden bed frames held sagging mattresses that were, I'm sure, already hiding this hotel's main guests. The pillows were ancient yellowed, every plush surface was stained with mucusy splatters - there was even an unflushed surprise in Josh and Bryan's toilet. It was also apparent that this was the kind of hotel where people never checked out of, a place where people ended up living because they had nowhere else to go. After a run to clear our heads, it was apparent that the bus (never mind us) was not going to be safe there, and we decided to leave.

Fortunately for us, we DID have somewhere else to go, and that was to Granger, where we were greeted by an awesome hotel staff, 24-hour parking lot surveillance, and an Applebee's. Today's plan is to take Chicago by storm, after some strong coffee. Hopefully tonight we will have a less exciting hotel experience, but who knows? It's not an adventure until something goes wrong, right?

Until next time, I remain your #bigredbus reporter. Have a great Saturday!

- Haley

#bigredbus - The Bus Chronicles 2012, Pt. 1

Timothy Nurnberger

Hi all! Today, the big red Simply Smiles bus left its cozy home of Fairfield, CT for its maiden voyage to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota. I write to you from the Super 8 Motel in Clearfield, PA, about 340 miles from Fairfield.

It's been an awesome day. After a 9 am departure (okay, 9:15), we hit the road with Bryan finally putting to use that CDL he worked so hard for. The weather was beautiful, the tunes were rockin' (we had a great 90's mix tape going for most of the trip, with some Bruce Springsteen thrown in for good measure), and the bus was truckin'.

As far as the bus's loyal crew is concerned, there are 5 humans and 2 dogs: Bryan, Gaby, myself (Haley Brown), Josh Dufresne, and Christiana Whitcomb - joined by the unfailingly energetic Chip and Josh's dog, Maddie. It's a great group of people and we've had a lot of laughs already. We stopped for a quick stretch at a lake in Pennsylvania (a lake that's name is now escaping me) and the dogs went wild, swimming and playing fetch. Those of us dumb enough to accompany the dogs on the dock were soaked almost immediately; Gaby watched from a rock and laughed at our poor judgement.

After we set up camp at the motel, Bryan, Christiana, Chip, and I decided to go for a run and had our courage truly tested when we had an almost near-death experience with some wildlife. We were all running and Chip, as it were, made a sudden dart to the left directly into my running path. I quickly hopped out of the way, only to have my foot land not three inches from the belly of a woodchuck. Startled, we both stared at each other and decided the best course of action to get away. Running away was the best option for both parties, but unfortunately we ran in the same directly. Woody (that's his name) made a break for it right into my sneaker and I almost died of a heart attack.

We stopped in for grub at the Dutch Pantry, an awesome space sporting hand-woven baskets and antique tools for decoration and mason jars for drinking. There were shelves of jams and jellies for sale and the whole place smelled like cinnamon. Truly a unique spot that one can only find on the road.

Tomorrow, we hope to make it to Indiana. That's as far west as I've been!

Make sure to watch our Twitter page at @simplysmilesinc for real-time updates on the progress of the #bigredbus. You never know what tomorrow will bring.

Goodnight!

- Haley