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Simply Smiles provides bright futures for children, families, and communities. The organization partners with populations in need to create physical and emotional environments where suffering is alleviated and from which local leaders can emerge.


Simply Smiles blog

Follow our blog and read insights from Simply Smiles staff, volunteers and other individuals whose lives are affected by our work!

Filtering by Tag: mexico

Field Notes from Mexico: Treatment and infection rate updates

Timothy Nurnberger

I’ve just returned from my third trip with Simply Smiles, Inc. to the mountains of southern Oaxaca, Mexico, where I have been spear-heading an effort to eradicate intestinal worms among a population of 3,000+ individuals...

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I Am A Bag: Zach’s Whirlwind Summer (So Far)

Zach Gross

In the past three months, I have: made a cross-country road trip to the Cheyenne River Reservation on our big red bus; flown home for a two-week stint in the office to help launch Simply Smiles Coffee; flown back to South Dakota for two more weeks on the Reservation; flown down to Mexico for a medical clinic to treat thousands of people for intestinal worms and to host two volunteer groups; and flown back to South Dakota for the final six weeks of the summer.

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Shepaug in Oaxaca 2013 - Blog #2

Timothy Nurnberger

Today was an excellent day. With a supreme breakfast of pancakes (in letter form) and bacon to kick off the morning, we got right to work. After yesterday’s impressive work of mixing eleven batches of cement, our pain did not prevent us from another day of hard labor. Between digging 1.33 meter holes, laying bricks, sifting sand, playing with puppies, and organizing donation materials for our friends at the dump, a great deal of progress was made.

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"Esperamos, Sam" - Final Reflections from Mexico

Timothy Nurnberger

“Esperamos, Sam.” “We will wait” is what Mari Cruz said to me as I forced out my goodbye to her and her family on my last day in the Santa Maria Tepexipana this summer. I had just explained to them, above the roar of pouring rain, that since I am now graduated and in the Smile Corp, I’ll be back soon, but unfortunately had to leave a day early. That morning I rushed over to say goodbye while tropical storm Ernesto was making its way through Oaxaca and was at full force in Santa Maria, so we had to postpone the food distribution for a week and decided we should leave before the road out of the jungle was too bad. But right as I made my way out the door intending to run back up the hill to help the group finish cleaning up the camp, Mari Cruz’s father, Don Aron, said to me, “Wait, you all are leaving right now?” And I explained that we thought that was the best plan because the rain could go on for days, but he disagreed because the rivers we drive through to get to Santa Maria would already be too high for the vans to pass. So we walked back up to our camp together, where we found Juan, Lula, Javier and Pete, and all decided we better wait until the rain was over and the road cleared before we made our departure. Lula and Javier thought the rain would end in just a few hours (while I was pretty convinced it would actually last a few days), and the truck used to clear the roads would be able to come that afternoon, so ultimately we decided to stick it out and leave in the morning. It was quite fortunate that Don Aron had our back, as word came that the roads were indeed too bad to go down, so we would have had to turn back anyway.
So, since flexibility is always fun, we made the best out of the situation. Emma and I heated up some leftovers, we all played cards, listened to Eli and Pete play the guitar, and fortunately the rain did in fact end early in the afternoon. Even though my morning started off with being stuck in the rain, our plans being cancelled, and thinking my last day in Santa Maria with all my friends would be cut short, it actually turned into one of the best days of the summer and of my life. When the rain stopped, all of our closest friends came up to our camp simply to hang out and enjoy the crafts that Lissa, one of our dedicated volunteers, brought down with her. We had blank white hats and fabric paint for people to decorate, and a polaroid camera, both of which everyone LOVED. Fathers, mothers and kids painted hats together for hours. A few families asked Emma and I to decorate hats for them, which was actually a little stressful, trying to make them perfect as they all wanted their names written out nicely along with “Recuerdo de Simply Smiles” or “Memory of Simply Smiles” next to a special design like a flower or star. Mine ended up coming out well enough, even though doing anything artistic takes up all of my concentration and effort, so since that wasn’t entirely possible, I’m pretty sure a couple of the people who asked me to decorate their hats were a little envious of the ones Emma did. I tried my best.
Word about the Polaroid camera spread quickly too, and a bunch of families from around the area made their way to our camp just to get their first family picture taken. Emma, Pete and I, as well as many of the volunteers, were also asked to join in many of the pictures which made it a unique, unforgettable experience for all.
That night, we had goat for dinner. The goat was retrieved by Javier who walked 2 hours away to a village to buy it, then 2 hours back, putting the goat on his shoulders to carry it through the rivers. He was quite proud of this feat, and the goat was great. We shared it with at least 30 people as we watched Disney’s “Tangled” which everyone adored.
Finally I said my goodbyes all over again
and then again at 6am the next morning before we actually left Santa Maria Tepexipana. Those goodbyes were a lot easier as I felt that after spending a relaxed day with our closest friends, sharing food, laughs and smiles, I could leave without any regrets. I was also assured by Mari Cruz, Ana Cristina and their whole families that they will be awaiting my return, and I promised them that I will be waiting to too.
Every week this summer I grew more aware of the impact we can have on peoples’ lives. Day after day I was truly humbled and grateful to be apart of such an incredible organization, and such a strong community of people, who are willing to help others through extending their hands as friends. Simply Smiles focuses on relationship building first. Throughout my last three years as an intern I can truly say that I am constantly amazed at how quickly we were able to establish such strong relationships with our friends in Santa Maria, and how we are able to sustain strong friendships at Casa Hogar and the city dump. Whether it was making a hat for Lula in the jungle, forcing Nacho to have a conversation with me about his dreams for the future in English at Casa Hogar, or playing basketball with Edith’s girls at the park, I continually saw how small acts of compassion can have huge effects, and that is the foundation of Simply Smiles. As an intern, I am lucky enough to return week after week and year after year which has allowed me to make lasting friends throughout Oaxaca, as well as form lifelong friendships with my fellow interns, and am able to become friends fast with all the incredible volunteers that I meet throughout the season.  Building relationships, community, and friendships is how Simply Smiles improves peoples’ lives.  The friendships that I have made from this summer alone have brought me countless laughs, a few tears, and have helped me grow as an intern and a person. Now, being back in the office in CT, working to support all we do in Mexico and South Dakota, all I can do is wait patiently to be reunited with them all once again.

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 :)



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



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

Timothy Nurnberger



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.



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!



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.



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.



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,


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 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!