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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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Filtering by Tag: field notes

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 the Reservation: "We still have so much work to do"

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by volunteer Christy Wright, Director of Youth Ministries at Sudbury Methodist Church and is working this week with her Gales Ferry friends.

One of the most difficult mysteries of life to understand is the tension of celebration and sorrow, deep joy and great mourning. We admit that this world is beautiful, but we also acknowledge its brokenness. We are working toward a better life, but we still have so much work to do.

At the airport, Sam met us with the famous big red bus, bearing the love letters of previous volunteers inscribed across the ceiling. We pulled out of the parking lot, dropping the bus windows with the breeze pouring in. Even the air smelled different. It’s rich and organic, musky and heavy with life. With a folksy soundtrack emanating from the crackly bus speakers, we passed through fields of corn, soy, and sunflowers; giant cylindrical bales of hay dotted the landscape, and telephone poles punctuated the scenery like long, narrow picture frames. We could almost perceive the clouds’ movement as they shift shapes and drift lazily against the deep blue sky. The sun began to set behind us, and we breathed it all in. The push and pull of the wind bounced through one open window and out another, brushing through our hair as we began our new adventure.

Our first few days of work oriented us around the Reservation and the needs of families, kids, and the greater community. From a patchwork of stories to the history of the people, we observed and listened, realizing that we simply cannot understand the depth of their hearts. It continues to become more real as we interact with the kids during camp. The kids know that Simply Smiles is here for them; the organization’s presence over the past several years is evidence of their deep love. But we still have so much work to do.

Goofing around at camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Goofing around at camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

One day at camp this week, there was a small boy playing with Legos at one of our colorful picnic tables; he had built a well-fortified structure, housing two action figures: one was tan, the other was blue. I asked if I could join in, and his response made my heart drop. “Yes, you can play. We’re different colors,” he said as he handed me the tan soldier, “so we’re enemies.” 

It was such a simple response, but it raises so many questions. I’m positive this boy meant nothing by it, but it may evidence the very real racism that is still present across North America. Rather than being innately racist, his comment may have been just a statement of reality as he saw it. Its systemic, ingrained presence feels almost as undeniable as the blue of the sky.

We still have so much work to do.

This is not to say that progress isn’t being made. There are success stories and amazing landmarks that we reach everyday. Perhaps the best example of the love we are witness to is in the genuine laughter of the kids, sometimes at our expense. Many times today, water balloons were broken over our heads, but the momentary surprise and rush of freezing water is well worth the mischievous grins and raucous giggles.

We are working toward a better life.

This evening, we welcomed several local artisans to the community center to share their talents with us. From handmade bracelets and necklaces, to dream catchers and earrings, we found beauty in their creations and in the creators. To the soundtrack of local drummers, we danced under the South Dakota stars, lightning flashing before us, illuminating the clouds. Behind us, the fiery sunset produced perfect gradients of color. As the drums’ booming faded into the night, quiet conversations with members of the community continued as the bugs began to bite and the crickets sung their song into the darkness.

It’s moments like these that confirm our humanity, our reality. There is so much complex and intricate beauty in our world, and so many injustices that pierce our lives, but we must do our part. We are working toward a better life, but we still have so much work to do.

Field Notes from the Reservation: Settling in, tapping into talents

Alex Gross

This week's Field Note is brought to you by first-time Reservation volunteer Janet Huley. 

Last night (Sunday), Simply Smiles hosted a large group of families of all ages during its town-wide meal.  Teenaged boys and girls flocked to the recently-completed basketball court and divided into teams with mostly the younger interns and volunteers. 

Parents and grandparents sat down and were eagerly served delicious vegetable pasta with watermelon salad. Some of the ingredients were from the garden and greenhouse behind the big sign that serves as a windbreak and declares to the passing traffic, “La Plant Grows Its Own Food!” One boy asked me suspiciously what the red cubes were in his salad, so I asked him to taste them and tell me if they were a vegetable or a fruit. “Fruit!” he declared. I tried to get him or his brother to sit still for a sketch, but all I could manage were some features before they joined in the games with all the other kids. 

I got two sisters to sit for their portrait for longer and found that there were many critics their age who would take a look and assure the sister “It doesn’t look like you!” The older sister told me that I didn’t draw very well, so I responded that I was rusty and needed more practice; perhaps after drawing for awhile I would do better. She then offered to draw my portrait, and while drawing she kept saying she wasn’t a good drawer and she didn’t know how. She was very hard on herself. I kept telling her that she should draw what pleases her, and never mind what she thought it should look like - to draw it the way she saw it, and if she liked it, that was the most important thing. Her picture of me was wonderful, with many details like my earrings and clothes. I got to keep her picture of me and in turn, she asked for and I gave her my portraits of her, her sister, and her cousins. 

I talked with some of the parents and grandparents and some were outgoing and gregarious, while some were shy and reserved. Everyone lingered over the meal, and we discussed the new playground that I could see would really help. Sometimes the younger children are hesitant to join in on basketball with the older kids, and so they need a safe place to play where people can keep a watchful eye on them!

Monday began our workday. We had assignments, some of which were geared toward our interests and talents. I was working in designing and implementing a book club sign with several other very talented, creative people. We sketched it out and tried out different designs before finding a suitable piece of wood for the sign and the books we wanted to hang on it. We decided that each book title that the club read would be painted on a little piece of wood with the year, and placed on the sign. We found painting supplies and divided up the work, in addition to priming and painting signs for the vegetable garden. 

A new sign is created to celebrate Book Club milestones! Each book completed will be marked on the Book Club board! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

A new sign is created to celebrate Book Club milestones! Each book completed will be marked on the Book Club board! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Next to us, my husband, who is also volunteering this week, was working on building a tent for holding music camp. He was in his element working with a team of enthusiastic volunteers digging stakes and assembling this tent that will shade a group of kids on Tuesday. Elsewhere, a group was preparing the ground for the playground, and everyday we share the chores of everyday living.

Earlier we toured an almost-finished house, and a house in progress. Inspired by the future, we were told we were going to help unload two new houses - by hand! - to be delivered this week.

Summer camp brought back some of the kids we had seen on Sunday, and we were ready with many activities. I couldn’t get anyone to allow me to paint their face, but they did allow me to paint buffalo, suns, basketballs, Minions, and wolves howling at the moon on their hands and arms. In turn, I got a Minion on my hand and some blue faceprint, too. Kids tie-dyed bandanas, decorated treasure boxes, drew with chalk, played beanbags and made friendship bracelets. 

In the reading nook, I was privileged to have one read a whole book out loud to me. 

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

Alex Gross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Now, onto the heavy part of my post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(E. Russell, La Plant, July 2015)

(E. Russell, La Plant, July 2015)

Field Notes from the Reservation: The weight of being present

Alex Gross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Field Notes from the Reservation: Gradually understanding the place

Alex Gross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Field Notes from the Reservation: Raising walls, making friends

Alex Gross

This mid-week Field Note is a collective post by the student and faculty volunteers from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT (which also happens to be Gaby's alma mater! )

We arrived on Saturday, June 20th and, as soon as we arrived, the fun started. This week is dedicated to health promotion with topics that including nutrition, dental care, heart health, and diabetes. Some of the students and faculty are from different concentrations in the health professions, and we have some individuals from the social work department.

We didn’t know what to expect coming onto the Reservation, but we all came in with an open mind and positive thoughts for the week ahead.  

On our first full day, we went on a wonderful tour of the Community Center and the town of La Plant, and we started to learn about the culture and the Lakota. At a first glance, the homes looked like a safe place to live and to raise a family. When Sam started to tell us stories, the group started to realize just how severe the living conditions were for some families, both physically and emotionally. It was challenging to hear about the way some children lived and to hear about the school system. It was disheartening to hear that education is not valued, and that children had few hopes or ambition before Simply Smiles. These anecdotes moved us to be a change in the community and to make the most out of the week despite the obstacles that we knew that we would face.  

In the afternoon, we started to work on some of our projects that we would be working on continuously throughout the week. It was a great way to dive head on into the week. In the evening, we helped to set up and prepare for the town wide dinner. We met some of the community members and shared a meal with them. Many of the people in town were more than willing to have us sit at their table and they welcomed conversation.

Our days have started off with a morning mile and, then, moved onto work projects after a delicious breakfast. Our group was divided into subgroups to work on various projects. Some of the work projects have included cementing the whimsical path to the future playground site, putting up the walls on Elvis and Renessa’s new home (which we finished! Yay!), working on the garden, and cutting and painting pieces of plywood for a new buffalo art installation. 

(Almost) raising the roof!:  The Sacred Heart group works with our friends Kee and Elvis to get the exterior supports of the house complete!

(Almost) raising the roof!: The Sacred Heart group works with our friends Kee and Elvis to get the exterior supports of the house complete!

Although the work is challenging, we know that the work we are doing is going to benefit the individuals in LaPlant.  

In the afternoon, we had camp and got to meet some of the amazing children. At first, the children were quiet and didn’t really interact with us. Many of us have had experience with children and, during our evening conversation of "highs and lows," the unresponsiveness of the children was a universal "low." 

The kids have to get re-accustomed to new people every week, which must be really hard. They get close to someone in a short amount of time and then those volunteers leave, and are replaced with others.  However, that next day there was something different about the children. They were more open with us and asked us to do things with them like craft or play basketball.  

Basketball remains the go-to activity with the kids! (E. Russell, La Plant, June 2015)

Basketball remains the go-to activity with the kids! (E. Russell, La Plant, June 2015)

A moment in the powwow grounds!  (E. Russell, La Plant, June 2015)

A moment in the powwow grounds! (E. Russell, La Plant, June 2015)

We did some drawing activities, bracelet-making, made some mosaic kites, played kickball, knockout, basketball, jump roped, and played some board games.

Hearing their laughs and seeing their smiles made our day better.

On Tuesday night, we had bingo night at the Community Center. It was great to be able to see the town, young and old alike, enjoying the game, as well as the weather.  

On Wednesday, Barbara, a La Plant resident, was kind enough to tell us about what her life was like. It was difficult to hear some of the things she was saying, especially when she became so emotional talking about her experience with the boarding schools. We had no idea that some teachers at her school were actually Lakota themselves. Hearing a first-hand account of what it is like to live here on the Reservation was not only eye-opening but also extremely powerful.

It's a conversation that we won't easily forget. 

Field Notes from the Reservation: Perception versus reality of the Plains

Alex Gross

Today, our Field Note is brought to you by volunteers Delaney, Sofia, Lauren, and Gaby from the Palmer Trinity School in Miami, Florida, who are spending the week in La Plant with us!

Spending a week on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation is nothing like we imagined it would be - we pictured empty plains of grass, filled with roaming buffalo and tipis scattered throughout the landscape. These may be typical images from the movies but, in reality, it is far from it.

While spending time on the Reservation these past couple of days, we realized that our imaginations were heavily influend by media and that we didn’t take time to think about how life on the Reservation has drastically changed with time. This Simply Smiles trip has introduced us to the real world of the Lakota, and these stereotypical images has been erased.

Fun building at camp!  (Z.Gross, June 2015, La Plant, S.D.)

Fun building at camp! (Z.Gross, June 2015, La Plant, S.D.)

We've realized that the people in La Plant are some of the most genuine, caring people that we've ever met, and the fact that our country attempted to eradicate them makes us ashamed.

Some of the families on the Reservation may be broken, but to see the children’s smiles warms our hearts. Their resilience amazes us.  We have connected with the children during camp, carried them on our backs, and played endless games. We spent an afternoon in a cooking class where we made conversation with some of the elders and heard their stories of how our government shamed them for speaking in their native tongue.

This Simply Smiles trip, especially interacting and talking to the people here in La Plant, has opened our eyes to how dangerous our preconceived notions can be and, at the same time, just how wrong they really are. 

Many hands:  The Palmer Trinity School crew helped to install six wall panels on a new home for a great family in La Plant!

Many hands: The Palmer Trinity School crew helped to install six wall panels on a new home for a great family in La Plant!

Field Notes from the Reservation: Processing the last day of the volunteer week

Alex Gross

The final Field Note for the week from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point volunteer group is brought to you by Vanessa Vincent. 

Our last and most exciting day at Simply Smiles: It was a cold and windy morning but members of the community and the Simply Smiles crew still made the effort to walk side-by-side for the morning mile.

While conversing with community members through out the week, I was honored to be able to hear their stories and their experiences.

On Friday, I was so proud to see the children perform at a concert at their school, in which they sang Lakota songs, played the flute, and hoop danced with Lakota storyteller, musician and dancer Kevin Locke. At the end of the program, our crew was asked to dance the friendship dance, or round dance, with the children.  

The group learns how to hoop dance from the kids at a special presentation at the school! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

The group learns how to hoop dance from the kids at a special presentation at the school! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

Vanessa teaches the kids a few new tunes during camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

Vanessa teaches the kids a few new tunes during camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

I feel sad to leave the friends that I have made during my experience with Simply Smiles, especially after working alongside them and talking with the people here. The kids at camp were excited about the games that we provided, and I was so happy that some of them enjoyed playing the piano and singing songs! I was able to teach some of the girls a song on the piano by writing down the notes. The next day one of the girls came to camp and had already learned how to play the song I had taught them! I was thrilled! 

I will take my experience at Simply Smiles back home with me and share what I have learned. I feel I have a broader perception about LaPlant and its community, and I will remember the memories our UWSP crew have made here with Simply Smiles.