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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: education

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: Matching history lessons to a place, needing to do more

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by Dennis Cullinane, a teacher at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and leader of the student group that is volunteering with us this week on the Reservation. 


When I embarked upon my journey west to La Plant, South Dakota with Simply Smiles, I was under the impression that I understood what current Native culture was like, and the tragic history that came to shape it. To be sure, some of my understandings were accurate, and in fact, as I traveled here and during my first days in La Plant, I read The Last Stand, a book about Native and U.S. government relations leading up to the Battle of the Little Big Horn. I had also taught and interacted with Native students back at Deerfield Academy, had studied the public health issues of Native Americans, and growing up as a Democrat in Massachusetts, I was sure I was well armed to understand the people I would be helping.

As the days in La Plant have unfolded though, I’ve begun to understand better how incredibly complicated, and dare say, sinister, are the history and current issues facing the inhabitants of the Cheyenne River Reservation. And perhaps most importantly, I now have a tremendously ingrained sense of how scheming, poverty, neglect, and ignorance can trap a people, year after year, generation after generation, in a cycle of despair and surrender.

Dennis, right, works with Jeremy from La Plant to build the foundation of a wood pellet shed at the new homes.

Dennis, right, works with Jeremy from La Plant to build the foundation of a wood pellet shed at the new homes.

Where I came from, unemployment is lower than virtually any country in the Western world, public and health facilities are equally world-class, and a greater educational experience than the generation before is not just a hope, but a certainty. Little kids grow up wanting to be doctors, lawyers, astronauts, marine biologists, or president of the United States. Even African Americans, a cohort that has suffered tremendously at the hands of American society, now can tell their children that they, too, can be president. Unfortunately, the reality I left either nominally exists, or does not exist at all on the Reservation. 

To the great credit of the people who have lived here for generations, and despite all that they as a living historical lineage have endured, they are warm, friendly, thoughtful, profoundly philosophical, and deeply proud of their heritage.

Indeed, I have been incredibly impressed with the indefatigability of their spirits in their daily lives, but I cannot help but feel a need to do more.

Working side-by-side: Volunteer Katie works with Shane of La Plant to frame in a bathroom ceiling on a new home.

Working side-by-side: Volunteer Katie works with Shane of La Plant to frame in a bathroom ceiling on a new home.

Not more in the simple sense of giving money, or goods, or et cetera, but to help kick start the next generation so that they can exit the vicious cycle in which they unknowingly find themselves. Indeed, lending them the lens to see another, possible, happier and more constructive future can be as simple as letting them know somebody else cares about them, wants them to succeed, and in some instances, expects more of them. This knowledge is exactly what will send them - especially the children - careening out of cycle in a wonderfully chaotic tour of life that most of us, their neighbors, take for granted every day of our lives.

A fire was smoldering in me when I committed to the week here at Simply Smiles, smack dab in the middle of South Dakota. That smoldering ember is now burning brightly. I now see the face of my own happy, eager, well-educated, well-traveled and wonderful 14-year-old son in the eyes of every kid I see here, and I shudder at the thought of him giving up on his future and being sucked into a cycle of generational despair.

The kids here need a lens, or a higher hill to stand upon, or whatever metaphor you like, so that they can see further and do more with their lives. I now understand life here, but sadly, only a little bit better.


Field Notes from the Reservation: The complexities of being present

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is from Emma Russell, who is in the special category of super volunteer. In addition to her service in Mexico, Emma has shared her time and talents with Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Reservation beginning in 2008. Emma has parlayed her passion and on-going commitment to education to organize two college tours for middle and high school-aged students. The most recent trip in October 2015 was to the University of South Dakota, where nine female students from the town of La Plant, ranging from 7th to 12th grade, joined Emma and Simply Smiles staff member Alex on a two-day tour of the University. Below, Emma addresses the complexities of telling stories that honors relationships that she's made on the Reservation.


Emma, having fun with the kids at camp on the Reservation. (August 2014)

Emma, having fun with the kids at camp on the Reservation. (August 2014)

Although I have had the profound privilege of being a part of Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Reservation since some of the very first days, I have yet to write anything about my experiences until now. A big part of me feels guilty and irresponsible for neglecting to put my many thoughts into written words, yet I have been hesitant for a reason.

To begin, I tend to be a perfectionist when writing and the weight of telling this story always seemed to leave me paralyzed, unable to write for fear of saying the wrong thing, or sharing something that is so grand and deep I could not possibly do it justice. From my very first months on the Reservation, I was acutely aware of my ignorance of this new place. I was truly an outsider, and this made telling the story uncomfortable. This, paired with my shock at the manner in which our nation’s gross past against Native Americans persists on reservations today (and my oblivion to it), made writing something adequate and all-encompassing feel impossible. Now, less ignorant, but still a world apart from the lives lived by those on the Reservation, another thing weighs on me: friendship.     

I will never fully understand what it is like to be Native and live with these heinous injustices that resonate loudly in present day. However, the countless times that I have seen children whom I have watched grow up for the past 7 years (and who are still children) question the worth of their own lives, I am equally as loudly reminded of this direct and tragic correlation between past and present. 

In today’s world, death and depression, particularly among native youth, are devastatingly substantial parts of the current narrative of reservations across America. Furthermore, these narratives are but a whisper among the majority of the country—if even that.

I have wrestled a serious conflict within me since setting foot on the CRST for the first time six summers ago. A conflict that involves telling a story that is certainly not mine to tell, but if I do not tell it, I become a part of the problem that has persisted for generations.

Which leads me to where I am today: staring at my computer screen with a profound love for all of my friends in La Plant, attempting to strike a balance with my words that maintains the level of respect they deserve, while still bearing the weight of a persisting injustice that I (both directly and indirectly) own.

Every year, I go back to live in La Plant and my heart breaks on multiple occasions. I am also, however, overcome with joy and hope for the future of the kids and teens in La Plant. While my recent trip in October was not without its heartbreaks, I want to share with you the positive anticipation that resounded while taking a group of nine incredible young women on the second ever Simply Smiles College Tour. 

Nine students from the town of La Plant on the Reservation visit the Native American Cultural Center at the University of South Dakota. The Center is integral to Native student retention rates. (October 2015)

Nine students from the town of La Plant on the Reservation visit the Native American Cultural Center at the University of South Dakota. The Center is integral to Native student retention rates. (October 2015)

I have always believed that, more than almost anything else, education is a catalyst for social change. The young population of La Plant deserves to not only wonder, but also KNOW that college is a part of their futures if they so choose. On this trip, I was impressed over and over again by the girls’ questions, enthusiasm, and dreams. The girls asked about pre-medical programs, nursing, art, and veterinarian programs. They explored new concepts at the college fair such as anthropology and sociology. I reveled in the look of astonishment and admiration when they told faculty members from different programs that they were only in seventh/ninth/tenth grade. They displayed a maturity I have not seen in many people my age. I was ecstatic when the one senior on the trip made sure they attended the scholarship seminar upstairs and then filled out an application on the spot. The girls displayed the confidence and self-awareness to sit down at the big piano in the crowded student center and play songs they learned at music camp for all passing students (very well, I might add). They inspired everyone—from the faculty of the school, to the young women of the Coyotes Division I basketball team, to myself, to each other—with just how incredible they can be and what that means for their futures. 

The students from the Reservation take a tour of the University of South Dakota campus. (October 2015)

The students from the Reservation take a tour of the University of South Dakota campus. (October 2015)

These young women demonstrated a self-confidence, excitement, and air of inquiry that I had not before felt or seen on my trips visiting schools as a prospective student…and some of them are only 12 years old. The goal for these Simply Smiles college trips is not just to ignite in the students the thrill and positive anticipation for their futures, although it is critical.

The youth in La Plant exist in a world where many have lost their peers, many under the age of 15, because young adults are constantly left to wonder if their lives are worth something—worth living. To combat this reality, this trip also promotes experiences that allow these young teens to realize just how extraordinary they are - something that we and the other adults in their lives are reminded of on a daily basis, but that can sometimes be lost on them.

I would say that it remains unfathomable to me that the current situation for Native Americans pervades as tragically as it does today, yet it is evident each time I set foot on the Rez. There is no question about the effect the past has had on the present situation. Native children ARE suffering as a direct result of society’s attempt to stifle their culture, their beliefs, their language, and rob them of their land and resources. We as a collective society need to continue to own those mistakes made and those that continue to be made and fight them.

While it all still saddens me and there is still a very long way to go, I feel exceptionally lucky to be a part of something that is not only trying, but succeeding, in doing this one college trip, one smile, and one friendship at a time.

College tours not only enhance the prospect of a post-high school future, but that the lives of Native youth matter. (October 2015)

College tours not only enhance the prospect of a post-high school future, but that the lives of Native youth matter. (October 2015)