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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: mexico volunteer

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 Oaxaca: "There was cactus in my soup"

Alex Gross

This Field Note is from a multi-serving Simply Smiles volunteer and all-star community member, Betsy Van Loon. Over the years, Betsy has volunteered many times on the Reservation, but the following is her mid-week reflection during her first trip to the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico. And, learn the reasoning behind her unique post title here:


As is true with all Simply Smiles service trips, it’s challenging to find the right words. But, having cactus soup (sopa de nopales) is a good encapsulation of my experience so far: delicious, different, and deeply satisfying.

The Simply Smiles Home for Children is filled with bright colors, warm sun, amazing food, love, and laughter. There are 18 children, 2 dogs, 1 pig (a temporary visitor!), and numerous staff. This is a place of peace, security, cooperation, fun and function. I am a mother and a grandmother, and I would be happy to have any child raised in this place. This is the family that all children deserve and need to thrive.

Simply Smiles Volunteer Betsy Van Loon sharing some pictures, working with the kids at our children’s home on some homework, and learning some Spanish in the process!

Simply Smiles Volunteer Betsy Van Loon sharing some pictures, working with the kids at our children’s home on some homework, and learning some Spanish in the process!

During the week, the routine is simple and secure for the children. They are up early and dressed for school and have breakfast before they depart. No fussing, no fighting, and no drama. After school, the children immediately change from their uniforms to “play clothes.” Lunch is then served including homemade cactus soup. Then, it is time for homework. I can hear the children with the tutors downstairs as I am writing. After the work is done, it’s time for play.

American children are rushed from one activity to another, constantly under close adult supervision that often turns to interference. The children here are competent and independent. There is plenty of supervision but the children depend, with grace and energy, on each other and themselves. Each contributes to the community by doing their chores. Gaby and her staff have created an oasis of calm that touches the heart of all who come here.

The motto of Simply Smiles is “providing bright futures.” But every bright future depends on a happy today and the children’s home in Oaxaca is creating a happy today and another one tomorrow and the day after.

I am inviting everyone to come experience this place of peace and calm. Let yourself be surrounded by the love of the children and let them guide you through learning Spanish. They are supporting me in my grammatical goofs and gaffs with laughter and hugs.

And there is an endless supply of tortillas and black beans.

- Betsy

Say  queso!   The kids at the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico with volunteer Betsy Van Loon.

Say queso! The kids at the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico with volunteer Betsy Van Loon.


Field Notes from Oaxaca: What we've come to expect from Simply Smiles

Alexandra Gross

Our recent Field Note from Oaxaca is penned by volunteers extraordinaire Eleanor McCormick and Stefan Schütz. Eleanor, the associate pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence, KS, and her husband, Stefan, have led multiple youth and adult groups from their congregation at our project site on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota. They recently had the opportunity to visit the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico, working alongside children's home director, Gaby Chavez Hernandez, and the Mexico staff and, of course, having fun with the kids! Below are some of their insights.


By Eleanor McCormick and Stefan Schütz

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Eleanor & Stefan with the children! (Photos by Stefan Schütz)

Eleanor & Stefan with the children! (Photos by Stefan Schütz)

Just a short drive south from the Oaxaca Airport in Mexico is the Simply Smiles Home for Children. We entered the large metal gate to the joyful greetings of children—all eager for hugs and introductions. The colorful walls, chalk drawings on the paving stones, marbles in the sand, and bubbles in the air told us a full week was ahead!

Wednesday night Ana Lucia (6), with the patience of Doña Lulu and Doña Sylvia, staff at the children's home, helped in the kitchen cutting tomatoes—just as Sergio does on the Reservation. Similar to Simply Smiles' programs on the Reservation, where community is created under a pavilion at long picnic benches, we found a feeling of community in the courtyard at Simply Smiles Mexico: food is served family style, and relationships are nourished over delicious meals and laughter.

Each morning the children left for school. Meanwhile, the dedicated and loving staff of Simply Smiles worked hard preparing homemade lunch, mopping dormitories, sweeping outdoor play spaces, attending to dishes, and beginning laundry for 20 busy children all under the age of 18! Alma and Charlie created, sewed, and glued magnificent costumes for the upcoming Revolutionary Day parade, and their full crafting table was met with the biggest smiles as the children returned home in the afternoon. 

Gaby Chavez Hernandez has hired and inspires a team that looks out for the best interests of the children. This includes Rosa (6), who lacks the ability to speak, walk, or eat solid food. It also includes Jennifer (15) and Rosibel (17), who sit with Gaby and Paola at the kitchen most evenings to work on their high school level exams in human anatomy or English. 

On Saturday night, we celebrated Maricela (5) and Jenny's (9) birthdays! We all enjoyed a dance party with DJ Felipe (5), chocolate cake, fun hats, and lots of very loud singing!

These are the small things that make the Simply Smiles Home for Children different. A trip into the city for a cake: worth it. An extra hour in the evening on homework: worth it. The opportunity to make a child feel affirmed, known, and loved—this is what Simply Smiles is all about. Simply Smiles is making a long-term commitment to each of these children, and the level of dedication is palpable. 

Eleanor & Stefan join the birthday festivities at our home for children!

Eleanor & Stefan join the birthday festivities at our home for children!

Alma, center, helps the children with their homework at the Simply Smiles Home for Children. (Photo by Stefan Schütz)

Alma, center, helps the children with their homework at the Simply Smiles Home for Children. (Photo by Stefan Schütz)

As we asked more questions and participated more fully in the day-to-day schedule at Casa Hogar, we learned just how many opportunities are assured to these children. Through connections with local doctors and a location close to a children's hospital, access to affordable and excellent health care is provided to each and every child. A safe, clean, dynamic, and loving space has been built and is being maintained and expanded, so that these children can excel in school and have a brighter future. Educational success is supported by Doña Mari's fresh breakfast. Staff member Alma speaks with each child's teacher every day, attends school meetings, and tutors during afternoon homework hours.

For many years, we have been watching the Simply Smiles Home for Children transform lives from afar. We are so grateful for this opportunity to finally meet the children and see the sanctuary that has been built by volunteers before us in Oaxaca. Our experience only confirmed what we already knew to be true: Simply Smiles provides bright futures for children—one smile at a time!

(Photo by Geer Teng)

(Photo by Geer Teng)

Because of the quality of the volunteer experience that Simply Smiles consistently provides, we have returned to the Reservation year after year, leading youth and adult service trips. We plan to return to Simply Smiles Mexico for the very same reason. We were well prepared by the Simply Smiles staff, who were with us every step of the way. We lived and worked alongside staff like Gaby - who are patient, well informed, and working to create lasting change. No busy work ever... and this is not volunteer tourism.

This is, as we have come to expect from Simply Smiles, a profound, impactful and safe experience. 

We will miss the smiles that filled our past week. We look forward to seeing them again soon. Thank you to the staff of Simply Smiles for this remarkable volunteer experience. We cannot imagine a better way of spending our vacation.


Smiling faces at the Simply Smiles Home for Children! (Photo by Geer Teng)

Smiling faces at the Simply Smiles Home for Children! (Photo by Geer Teng)


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 Mexico: More Than Just "Deworming"

Alex Gross

This latest edition of Field Notes comes from Simply Smiles President & Founder, Bryan Nurnberger. Bryan is currently visiting Simply Smiles program locations in Oaxaca, Mexico where he helped to staff a medical clinic.


In Oaxaca, Mexico, 2,504 people just received treatment for parasitic infection from Simply Smiles. At the same time, we distributed over 12 tons of food staples, began construction on 14 more latrines and announced the opportunity for children to be educated from kindergarten through the college level at our our new “Casa Hogar Simply Smiles Children’s Home”.

Efforts to treat populations for parasitic infection, or “deworming” programs as they are often called, are one of the most impactful and most common actions taken by governments and NGOs in impoverished areas. While deworming efforts are extremely common around the world, they are almost always done in a manner that is not in keeping with the principles upon which Simply Smiles bases our work. For example, in the village where our Director of Oaxacan Operations, Gabriela Chavez Hernandez, grew up, strangers would show up every six months, pass out pills to treat for parasites and leave. This “treatment only” approach is the global norm because it’s easy to execute and the relatively low cost of the medicine makes indefinite treatment possible - but it is clearly not a solution to the problem.

Treatment only perpetuates a system of dependency and is a disrespectful way to support individuals in need.

 

If the reader feels conflicted or unsure about the definitive nature of this statement consider this scenario:  If your own child continuously suffered with an ailment that left him malnourished, in pain, and at risk of death from blocked intestines would you rather A) provide temporary relief twice a year forever or B) address the root cause of the ailment and cure your child permanently? Treatment only approaches dictate that answer A is what parents want for their children. Simply Smiles, and every parent with a choice, chooses answer B - a permanent and respectful cure. 

Simply Smiles President & Founder, Bryan Nurnberger with one of the children he encountered on his first trip to the Oaxacan villages. At the time, Rigoberto was suffering from severe parasitic infection. Pictured here at Thursday's clinic (5/26/16) Rigoberto is healthy and attending one of the schools Simply Smiles built in the region.

Simply Smiles President & Founder, Bryan Nurnberger with one of the children he encountered on his first trip to the Oaxacan villages. At the time, Rigoberto was suffering from severe parasitic infection. Pictured here at Thursday's clinic (5/26/16) Rigoberto is healthy and attending one of the schools Simply Smiles built in the region.

Since 2009, Simply Smiles has been working in an extremely remote mountainous area of Oaxaca, Mexico. Here we encountered poverty that was nothing less than stunning. The globalization of the coffee market over the past decades left the population of Zapotec Indians, who have lived here for centuries, in a state of near starvation. During our first visit to the region, the ubiquitous distended and hardened bellies made it immediately clear that there was also an extremely high rate of parasitic infection. While our initial response to this humanitarian emergency was swift, Simply Smiles waited until 2013 to address what we soon learned was specifically parasitic round worm infection. Why? So that we could do it right. Because truly eradicating parasitic infection necessitates complete trust from, and partnership with, the population in need. And that takes time and effort to build. So for four years we built trust by focusing on other needs in the region including distributing over 2.5 million meals and building two schools. It was not until 2013 that we were in a position to begin our eradication efforts. 

(To provide a little more insight into why we waited four years to begin the eradication program, when an infected individual is treated for parasites the medicine kills the worms and they are passed out of the body through what is often quite extreme vomiting and diarrhea. Imagine if someone you didn’t fully trust gave you a pill that had this effect on you. Treating for parasites before we had earned the complete trust of the population would have surely prevented us from being welcome in the region and therefore prevented us from providing the support the population needs.)

 

I have just arrived at our administrative office in Mexico after helping our team to host a medical clinic that treated 2,504 individuals for round worm infection. Treatment was the focus of this week’s work, but it is just one part of the Simply Smiles holistic plan to eradicate parasitic infection in southern Oaxaca, Mexico:

Partnership & Trust: When there is a line of 2,500+ people, you need a lot of help to manage a clinic of this size. My wife, Kristen, and I were the only Americans staffing the event. Our partnership with the local population means that we can help the people to help themselves. Villagers managed the flow of people through the clinic, translated Zapotec to Spanish at the registration table, helped to prepare and dispense the medicine, and distributed the 12 tons of food staples that are given at every clinic we host. 

Treatment: Twice a year Simply Smiles hosts a medical clinic where the population is treated for parasitic infection with the highest quality name-brand medication. 

Education: Because Simply Smiles built two schools in the region we are able to fold educational programs about how to prevent parasitic infection in the curricula. We’ve distributed thousands of informational pamphlets and hung innumerable signs. A doctor and/or nurse sees every single individual as they come through the clinics to explain what the treatment is for and why it is important. 

Prevention: One contracts round worm from contact with feces, either through lack of hand washing or as a result of open defecation. Each person receives a large bag of soap when they pass through the clinic along with instruction on how to effectively wash your hands. In an area without plumbing, construction of basic pit latrines is an economical and extremely effective way to provide sanitary facilities. To receive a latrine from Simply Smiles, a family signs out shovels and picks and then digs a 3 meter deep hole. Once completed, Simply Smiles sends our local construction workers to build a brick latrine on top of the hole. These latrines have an estimated lifespan of over 40 years. This week, we began construction of 14 additional latrines. 

Scientifically Proven Results: Simply Smiles has partnered with American and Mexican universities and pharmaceutical companies to formulate and execute our unique holistic program to eradicate parasitic infection. At the end of each calendar year, medical professionals including an infectious disease specialist, travel to Oaxaca and test stool samples from 10% of the region’s children. In 2013 the results showed a 48% infection rate. By 2015, that infection rate had dropped to 20%. Our next scientific testing will take place in November of 2016. We are hopeful that we will see an infection rate of less than 10%.

Simply Smiles, of course, will continue our efforts until eradication has been achieved and sustained. The children, families and communities in our care deserve nothing less.

 

For more information and photos, please visit our More Than Just Deworming webpage.

Field Notes from Mexico: Listening with open ears, serving with open eyes

Alex Gross

The latest Field Notes come from our youth volunteers who are now serving in Mexico at our children's home through a service trip coordinated by Silver Lake Conference Center in CT! The first entry is from Camryn Cicarelli of Sandy Hook, CT. The second reflection is from Danielle Peterson of Stratford, CT.


Sunday was our first full day at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles. We began our day by preparing pancakes and having morning reflections, where we learned about our tasks at hand and how they would not only help Simply Smiles, but also the people of Oaxaca. Before beginning our jobs we took a tour around the neighborhood of San Bartolo Coyotepec. It was incredible to see how the people of Oaxaca live; it also made me appreciate how fortunate I am. Each person we passed would smile and say hello (of course in Spanish) which was representative of the unity in this community. 

Camryn (left) and fellow volunteer, Katherine, pass cement bricks for an expansion of a patio at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles.

Camryn (left) and fellow volunteer, Katherine, pass cement bricks for an expansion of a patio at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles.

Once we were assigned our tasks, the long day began. I spent the afternoon moving a pile of sand and gravel in preparation for some cement mixing to expand the facility for more children in the future; under the intense Mexican heat, this task felt insurmountable. The feeling of finally completing the task was intensely rewarding. 

In the late afternoon we visited Casa Hogar Benito Juarez, the first children’s home that Simply Smiles supported, which was a life-changing experience. At first I didn’t really know how to communicate with the people there. But as the night progressed, communication became natural. We first made bracelets with some of the children. Although nobody could actually figure out how to assemble them, we shared lots of laughs.

One moment that I really cherished was when a young blind man named Nacho picked up the guitar and played like nothing I had ever heard before. Another notable moment of this night was playing basketball and soccer with a few of the boys at Casa Hogar. I was way too confident going in, and was quickly put in my place when a boy half my age dribbled right past me, leaving me in the dust. 

It was such an amazing feeling knowing that we were able to make all the people there smile, even if we were just there for a few hours. Overall, the day gave me a chance to see how a person thriving in this community actually lives. Also, it allowed me to see how important an organization like Simply Smiles is, and the power we have to impact a life. 

- Camryn

The Silver Lake volunteers with the children of Casa Hogar Benito Juarez.

The Silver Lake volunteers with the children of Casa Hogar Benito Juarez.


After the hard work day on Sunday, most of us were able to sleep pretty soundly, which was much needed. Monday began with a pre-breakfast yoga session led by Jen, which helped center our minds and mentally prepare us for the full day we had ahead of us. Plus, the stretching really helped our sore muscles from yesterday! Again, we split into various work groups, with some of us mixing cement, some reorganizing the bodega storeroom, and some cleaning decorative bricks for the new children’s rooms, among other jobs. I personally worked a lot on the roof laying bricks for the new patio, which was challenging due to not only the hot sun, but also the fact that Simply Smiles local foreman Javier and his crew accepted nothing less than perfection, which is understandable. The way it was explained to us was to do as well as we could, and to complete the work to the quality that you’d want for your own house— there is no “good enough”.

Danielle paints the exterior of a new laundry room at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles.

Danielle paints the exterior of a new laundry room at Casa Hogar Simply Smiles.

After lunch and some more work, we were able to travel to the Oaxaca City Dump, which was an eye-opening experience. All the trash and waste from the city end up there, and there is no separation between innocuous ripped clothing and toxic human waste. The pile has been growing exponentially, to the point where is it nearly overflowing into the communities nearby, and the government isn’t providing any kind of aid. The people in the community begin work at the dump at sunrise, picking through the often toxic trash for small pieces of plastic and anything of value that they can sell. For many, this is their only source of income, which adds up to about $1/day.

Regardless, families were extremely welcoming and opened their homes and the community to us, even though they know we live very different lives than them. Something we talked about at night during reflections was how easy it is to fall into pitying them. It’s very tempting to just come in as “saviors” and do what we think is best, when in reality that may not be what is best for them. 

This is one of the biggest initiatives of Simply Smiles, which I think is very important to its success as an organization—to come in with open eyes and ears and listen to the communities and what they need in order to not only survive, but thrive. We were invited into the first home that Simply Smiles built, for a woman named Edith and her family, and it was amazing to see where Simply Smiles began its work in the dump. Although the conditions are still far less than ideal, Edith and her family take immense pride in their home and the restaurant that they were able to open to further support themselves (the sandwiches are delicious). 

Overall, I’m very grateful for my experience at the dump— it’s very easy to turn your head away from things like this, but we made sure to feel this experience fully in order to show respect to the people living there. The work projects were physically demanding, but this was mentally taxing, and I’m glad I was able to experience it. Now, the important thing is to spread awareness of the injustices these hardworking, gracious people face every day, and to do something about it. The initiatives of Simply Smiles are working toward this goal, and I’m very glad I can experience this work first-hand and serve as an amplifier for the voices of the people of Oaxaca.  

-Danielle

Field Notes from Mexico: Reflections from first-time Mexico volunteers

Alex Gross

The latest Field Notes come from volunteers now serving in Mexico at our children's home! The purpose of these insights is to give you a glimpse into the lives of Simply Smiles volunteers, the work that they do and experiences they have while currently at our project locations. Practically speaking, Field Notes also serve as a means of checking in with family and friends of our volunteers! The first entry is by Michele Miller from Monterey, MA, who has served with us on the Reservation and now joins Gaby, Sam and Dave in Mexico for the first time. The second reflection is by two students, Graeme Cohen and Quinn Russo, from the Oxford Academy of Westbrook, CT.


Michele is all smiles as she paints the space that will soon be the kitchen at our children's home!

Michele is all smiles as she paints the space that will soon be the kitchen at our children's home!

In less than 48 hours, our Simply Smiles team has left behind the daily routines of our lives and the media madness of the moment to participate in the building of a new children's home here in a suburb of Oaxaca. This is not the picturesque Oaxaca you might be familiar with but the hardscrabble hand to mouth existence of the most impoverished people of Mexico. Beautiful people persevering against the odds. 
 

On Sunday, we visited Casa Hogar Benito Juarez, the inspiration for the current effort, to play and eat with the children. After a morning of pouring cement for the roof of the second story bathroom and painting the kitchen ceiling, we visited the dump where many families live in impossible conditions, sorting through the refuse of the entire city, to scavenge a living. Simply Smiles has become very close to these families, helping build homes and supporting their efforts to thrive. All of us feel this deeply, and are forever changed.

We will be bringing this rich experience home and hope other will join us next time we visit. - Michele Miller


The group during a trip to Monte Alban.

The group during a trip to Monte Alban.

As a participant of the Simply Smiles team, we have taken a break from a long day of climbing sturdy makeshift stairs while carrying heavy bucket loads of cement for the laundry room. Today, we spent the morning at Monte Alban exploring the Zapotec ruins, one of the beautiful wonders of Oaxaca.

Although we took a rest this morning, our minds are still reflecting the hardships we have seen. From Casa Hogar, to the depressing sight of the dump it has really made us reevaluate the meaning of life. Coming from a first world country, most of us take things for granted. When returning home, the strong emotions that we have experienced in these encounters will stay with us the rest of our lives. We believe it is our duty to pass along these experiences, and share the emotions that have been revealed. - Graeme Cohen and Quinn Russo


Field Notes from Mexico: bias, belonging, and dignity building - abroad and at home

Alex Gross

This latest Field Note comes from Sacred Heart University philosophy professor, Dr. Andrew Pierce. Drew volunteered with a team from SHU in mid-January 2016 and also worked alongside his former student - and our program manager of Mexican operations - Gaby Chavez Hernandez. Drew reflects on the complexities of racial and cultural bias and how to effectively and thoughtfully learn from his volunteer experience.


At the end of an amazing and challenging week-long experience with Simply Smiles in Oaxaca, I am left struggling to process all that I saw and did there, and to figure out a way to incorporate the experience into my daily life here in the United States. It’s a lot to process, but I’d like to focus on just one aspect of the trip, one that moved me deeply, and challenged me to think deeply about poverty and injustice as they manifest not only in Oaxaca, but in my own backyard as well.

The experience I’d like to reflect on was not the most physically challenging (in fact, it was probably one of the most fun experiences of the week), but it was challenging in other ways. On our final day with Simply Smiles, we organized a dinner and party for about a hundred people from the dump community that we visited earlier in the week.

The Sacred Heart University group gets a tour of the Oaxaca City garbage dump from Simply Smiles staffers Gaby and Zach, while standing on one of the trash mountains that overlook the communities below. (January 2016)

The Sacred Heart University group gets a tour of the Oaxaca City garbage dump from Simply Smiles staffers Gaby and Zach, while standing on one of the trash mountains that overlook the communities below. (January 2016)

This is a community of people who live and work in the Oaxaca City garbage dump, sorting through trash to find recyclables to sell. Picture them for a moment. How do they look in your mind’s eye? Dirty? Dressed in tattered clothing? The image you’ve concocted is probably not too far from the reality that we experienced when we visited that community earlier in the week – a people hardened by the searing sun and the unspeakable conditions in which they live.

And yet, one of the things that struck me about our gathering was that, when these families arrived, their appearance had changed drastically. They showed up clean, fashionably dressed in a style that most of us in the U.S. would find familiar, and displaying the same warm and amicable demeanor present in all of our interactions with them. Had you met these folks on the street, you would never guess that they lived in such abject poverty.

Perhaps this should not have been all that shocking. We all present ourselves differently at a party than we do at work, or in our homes. Perhaps it’s rather superficial to focus on appearance in this way. But I do think that there is a deeper insight that my superficial reaction was teasing out. It has to do, I think, with basic dignity, and with what it means to be recognized and treated as a fellow member of society in equal standing.

Fitting in, feeling “cool” or fashionable, in short, belonging, is important to all of us in one way or another. But why then are we often offended and enraged when the poor and marginalized demand this kind of belonging? When they demand to look like us? Why do we demand that the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed present themselves deferentially - in tattered cloth, with eyes toward the ground, as inferiors, in order for us to deem them worthy of aid? To bring the point a little closer to home, think of the woman on welfare carrying a designer handbag, or the man in line at the grocery store wearing hundred-dollar sneakers, checking out with food stamps.

These images have become standard tropes in our society, marshalled to blame the victims of systematic poverty and oppression for their own conditions, thereby relieving us of any responsibility we might have to help, or even care, as we ourselves pursue our designer bags, expensive shoes, and all the other accoutrements of consumer society. 

Dr. Pierce, with Gaby, a former philosophy student at SHU and current Simply Smiles program manager of Mexican operations. (January 2016)

Dr. Pierce, with Gaby, a former philosophy student at SHU and current Simply Smiles program manager of Mexican operations. (January 2016)

It may seem like a leap from the Oaxaca City dump to the streets of American cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and etc. But while living in dumps may be uncommon here, the kind of marginalization and injustice minority communities face in the U.S. is, finally, not that different from the kind that I observed in Mexico. The difference is that I have not been raised on a steady diet of stereotypes, rationalization, and disinformation designed to explain and justify the inferior status of the kinds of folks that inhabit the fringes of Oaxacan society, in the way that American society has inundated me with rationalizations of, for example, black urban poverty in the United States. Because of this, it is actually easier to see the people living in the Oaxacan dump as equals, or at least as genuine victims of injustice in need of relief. It is much more difficult to bring this attitude home and apply it to the disadvantaged groups that suffer right before our eyes.

So that is the task that I have set myself upon returning from my trip with Simply Smiles. I will not forget the amazing and inspiring folks that I met there, and I will share their story in hopes that others will be inspired to get involved in their particular struggle.

But perhaps even more importantly, I will make a greater effort to understand the poverty and marginalization in my own society, and search for ways to eradicate it. I will refrain from relying on stereotypes and hasty judgments when interacting with those who may be less advantaged than myself, and I will attempt to recognize and treat them as equals. Instead of searching for reasons to dismiss their claims, I will search for ways to empower and assist them.

In this way, my hope is that my week in Oaxaca does not become a one-off experience that gradually fades into memory, but helps me to become a person committed to justice, equality, and human dignity, in deed as much as in word. 

At the end of the volunteer week, the SHU team had a fiesta with our friends from the Oaxaca City dump - full of homemade tostadas, musical chairs, and lots of laughing! (January 2016)

At the end of the volunteer week, the SHU team had a fiesta with our friends from the Oaxaca City dump - full of homemade tostadas, musical chairs, and lots of laughing! (January 2016)


Field Notes from Mexico: More progress made in our public health efforts

Alex Gross

This Field Note is brought to you by Simply Smiles Senior Program Manager Zach Gross, who recently returned from our Mexico projects, where we held our third medical testing and fifth treatment of parasitic intestinal worms.


On November 9, I returned home from a fantastic week in Oaxaca, Mexico working with our Mexican staff members and a team of volunteers to carry out our latest medical clinic to treat for intestinal parasites.

I am pleased to report that our latest round of testing shows that the infection rate is now at 20% across this region—down from 48% just two years ago!

Nurse Bernarda Lopez Ordaz helps us to distribute treatment to children in Santa Maria Tepexipana (November 2015)

Nurse Bernarda Lopez Ordaz helps us to distribute treatment to children in Santa Maria Tepexipana (November 2015)

Over the course of three days, 2,173 people from the remote villages of southern Oaxaca came to our food distribution in the town of Santa María Tepexipana and received a month’s supply of food staples. Everyone (except children under age two and nursing or pregnant women) also received a dose of albendazole, which rids the body of intestinal worms and their eggs.

Our method of collecting demographic and qualitative information from participating families allows us to target areas with the highest incidence of intestinal parasites.

Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'Italien tests stool samples to determine the effectiveness of treatment. Gil has spearheaded our approach to eradicating parasitic intestinal worms in the region. (November 2015)

Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'Italien tests stool samples to determine the effectiveness of treatment. Gil has spearheaded our approach to eradicating parasitic intestinal worms in the region. (November 2015)

The infection rate on our final day of testing was 0%—meaning there were no positive samples among children in those villages.

These latest results are certainly encouraging, and they prove that our multifaceted public health initiative is having a directly positive impact on the health of children and families in Oaxaca.

But we still have work to do. A 20% infection rate is not 10%, which the World Health Organization deems the level at which treatment can occur on a case-by-case basis. And it’s not an overall rate of 0% — which is our ultimate goal, so that soil-transmitted intestinal worms are no longer a reality for families in the region.

Until that time, we will continue to treat the entire population. We will also continue working with the local schools to implement health programs, passing out informational literature on methods of prevention, and building more latrines and hand-washing stations—particularly in villages with the highest infection rates.

While the test results are a reliable, scientific method of measuring the impact of this public health initiative, other, more “subjective” methods are perhaps more telling of our overall impact in this region.

As soon as we first visited this remote part of Oaxaca in 2009, we saw the distended bellies, vacant stares, and malnutrition spots — all signs that intestinal parasites were plaguing the children and families there.

Rather than coming in as outsiders with microscopes and pills, we knew that in order to have long-term success in this region, we needed to form friendships first.

We needed to build trust and prove ourselves worthy of that trust and friendship through our actions. Because of these foundational relationships, we can continue to effectively implement all of our initiatives and measure their effectiveness,

Over the past few weeks, we have collected responses from various supporters and friends at our project sites about what Simply Smiles means to them. We asked our friend, Matea Figeuroa Santiaguez, from Santa María to explain how she sees Simply Smiles. She made note of our “humanitarian support,” referring specifically to the our distributions and school construction, but she really focused on the relationships she’s made with Simply Smiles staff and volunteers over the years—on the people behind the projects.

We appreciate all of the people who make this work possible, and we hope to maintain our friendships with those who visit us in this tiny corner of Mexico. We admire everyone we’ve met from different countries, and we in Tepexipana feel so proud to have made so many new friends over the years. We cannot thank everyone enough for all of their support — especially for the personal energy and sacrifice that each volunteer makes just to be with us in our town.
— Matea Figeuroa Santiaguez, resident, Santa Maria Tepexipana

 

The willingness of our volunteers to give up a week of their lives to spend time in Mexico and on the Reservation will never cease to amaze me. Our volunteers are the hands that distribute food & medicine and build latrines in Mexico, but they are also the encouraging role models and friendly faces that solidify the Simply Smiles dignity-first, relationship-based philosophy.


Field Notes from Mexico: An update from Gaby!

Alex Gross

This special Field Note comes from Gaby Chavez Hernandez, the program manager of our Mexican operations. As many in the Simply Smiles community know, Gaby was raised at Casa Hogar in Oaxaca and eventually became the first Simply Smiles scholarship recipient, which allowed her to study and live in the U.S. She graduated from Sacred Heart University in May 2015 with a degree in Business Administration and has been an integral part of Simply Smiles efforts in Connecticut, the Reservation, and Mexico. Read the latest insights from Gaby and about our Mexican projects under Gaby's leadership.


Gaby, pictured above, at our Center of Operations in Oaxaca, Mexico, which is where our children's home is located and also where we host volunteers for a portion of their week with us!

Gaby, pictured above, at our Center of Operations in Oaxaca, Mexico, which is where our children's home is located and also where we host volunteers for a portion of their week with us!

It has been more than three months since I returned to Oaxaca.

This new adventure started a little over a year ago when I finally decided to tell people that, after graduating from college, I wanted to join the Simply Smiles team. I was sure that I wanted to return to Oaxaca. After I made that announcement, I started to be fully aware of what I was getting into!

On July 7, 2015, I flew back to Oaxaca and somehow I felt strong and weak at the same time. I felt strong because I was confident in my decision. Over the seven years that I spent in Connecticut with Simply Smiles, I learned a lot about the management of the whole organization. But, at the same time, I felt weak because this was the first time that I fully realized that it was time to proceed to my next adventure in life. 

Since the day I returned to Oaxaca, I have learned a lot. I have faced many challenges. But, little by little, I am readjusting to my lifestyle back in Oaxaca. Soon after my arrival to Oaxaca, I started to manage some of the existing programs that Simply Smiles has here. 

During these three months, we have been working on building our own children’s home in Oaxaca City at our Center of Operations. For now, we are excited to welcome two students: Ana and Jesús. The siblings moved from their village in southern Oaxaca, Santa Maria Tepexipana, to Oaxaca City to continue with their education. 

Simply Smiles scholars Ana and Jesús at the Center of Operations in Oaxaca City!

Simply Smiles scholars Ana and Jesús at the Center of Operations in Oaxaca City!

We have also been working on finishing up more dormitories and bathrooms for our new children's home at our Center of Operations.

The dorm rooms for the new children's home at the Center of Operations are taking shape, thanks to great people like our construction foreman Javier and our volunteers!

The dorm rooms for the new children's home at the Center of Operations are taking shape, thanks to great people like our construction foreman Javier and our volunteers!

While we are trying to make sure that Ana and Jesús are doing well here in Oaxaca City, we are also making sure that the students from Santa Maria Tepexipana have enough school supplies to work with during this school year. We are also getting ready for our next distribution of food and a medical clinic event in November.

Preparations are in full swing for the November food distribution and medical clinic.

Preparations are in full swing for the November food distribution and medical clinic.

So, how am I doing overall?? At this point, I can say that I am doing great. However, "great" doesn’t mean that there haven’t been challenges while managing the work of Simply Smiles. But, during these challenges, I have adapted to the process and learned how to handle each situation. 

One of the greatest advantages that I have in this role is my ability to understand the cultural differences that exist in the U.S and Mexico. 

Besides taking on and managing my work responsibilities, I have had the opportunity to reconnect with my family. I have also reconnected with many of my friends, including my high school teachers. Each of them had encouraged me to do what I like and love to do. And after these three months, I am still happy and still excited for what I am doing back in Oaxaca. 

A few weeks ago, one of my high school professors told me, “The mark that you can make in this world is made by what you do in it, not by what you have in it." So, my hope for today is to make my own mark, and I hope to do it well. 

I would like to express my gratitude to everyone who has followed and supported me. To my parents and siblings: thanks for understanding my decisions and for continuing to follow me on my adventures. 

To my extended family and friends back in the U.S: thank you for believing in me and for always encouraging me to keep discovering my potential and for your unconditional love despite our distance now.

To the Simply Smiles community: thank you for your continued support because it gives me confidence that, together, we can provide better opportunities for youth here in Oaxaca.

Each day, I try to believe in myself, and I hope to learn and grow with each choice that I make in this new role. And I look forward to sharing updates with you during the many steps of this adventure!

Field Notes from Mexico: Insights from Yoonjong Lee, Choate student and dedicated volunteer

Timothy Nurnberger

At Simply Smiles, we are humbled by the ongoing support and participation of our volunteers. Our volunteers make our trips possible; they strengthen our relationships and partnerships in and among the communities and individuals we serve. Yoonjong "YJ" Lee is one such volunteer. Below, he shares his insights from his second service trip to Oaxaca with his Choate team.

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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...  www.simplysmiles.org/blog/2014/11/11/de-worming-update

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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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