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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: staff

Staff Notes: A different path, a renewed passion

Zach Gross

Our most recent post comes from Samantha Steinmetz, the Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator. After six years as a Simply Smiles staff member and 10 years after her first volunteer experience, Sam will begin her studies as a master's student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration this fall. Read more about how Sam's experience and commitment to Simply Smiles influenced to her decision to enter this inspiring academic and social endeavor.

Almost ten years ago, I went on my very first volunteer trip with Simply Smiles to Oaxaca, Mexico. The day after graduating high school, I jumped on a plane to Oaxaca with my friends (including fellow Simply Smiles staffer Zach!). I quickly fell in love with the kids at the children’s home where we stayed, as well as with the families in the community where we were building homes. Most of all, I felt incredibly empowered as an 18 year old with broken Spanish. At the very least, I could make a child smile; at the very least, I could crack a joke and share stories with the family whose home we completed.

I returned to Oaxaca throughout my summers in college as a Simply Smiles intern, and I was hired soon after graduation to work for Simply Smiles full time — my actual dream job.

A little help from friends:  Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator Sam Steinmetz and her high school basketball coach Al Ciarlo, who has volunteered on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, help their young friend balance on newly constructed stilts at Simply Smiles Summer Camp.

A little help from friends: Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator Sam Steinmetz and her high school basketball coach Al Ciarlo, who has volunteered on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, help their young friend balance on newly constructed stilts at Simply Smiles Summer Camp.

For the last six years, I have split my time among Mexico, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, and Connecticut. Few things have made me happier than spending time in these communities, with people whom I now consider friends and family. As I grew up with Simply Smiles, I have been incredibly lucky to watch our kids on the Rez and in Oaxaca grow too, and to be a consistent part of their lives.

It has also been incredibly humbling to work with and get to know hundreds of compassionate volunteers each year as the Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator, sharing my love for Oaxaca and the Reservation with others, and witnessing the incredible changes that the Simply Smiles community has inspired in the lives of indigenous youth and families.

Throughout my years, I have seen our kids grow to be confident in themselves and in their dreams for the future, knowing that they are capable and worthy of achieving those dreams. These intangible achievements, I believe, are our greatest.

For anyone who has visited the Reservation, you know that living there, working there, can often be challenging—the isolation and the climate of the South Dakota plains, for one. But more challenging is bearing witness to the current reality of the Reservation, a reality our government manufactured generations ago, a reality that is forgotten about and continuously ignored today.

I have witnessed the product of U.S. government policies that have shaped the current culture of youth suicide in South Dakota. I have had to learn how to respond when children I love scream at me, and cry to me, sharing their thoughts of self harm and suicide. This is, of course, the hardest part of my job. Though we work to combat this problem by working together to design and implement amazing programs—hundreds of days of summer camp, field trips to Colorado and the Crazy Horse monument, internship opportunities for teenagers, basketball clinics and tournaments, college tours, trips to Connecticut and New York City— there is always the underlying worry that these efforts will not be enough to save lives. That the despair of the Reservation will prove to be too much for another child we have come to know.

Recently, a child with whom I had become very close took her own life at the age of 12. She was one of the young girls I befriended during my first extended stay on the Reservation throughout the whole month of February, the winter after Zach and I graduated college. After having spent the majority of our time with Simply Smiles in Oaxaca, we were less familiar with the Rez. I was not confident that I could even open one of the storage unit doors, let alone design and host a youth program in a place so different from Mexico. We ran after school camp inside the Community Center, with freezing weather outside, no running water, and one pick-up truck. I wondered how, after one volunteer trip to sunny Oaxaca, we had gotten ourselves in this situation. Through all these moments of self-doubt, cold days, long evenings, being thoroughly tested by these tough yet silly kids, and using every bit of patience and blind love, I formed a particular bond with this one bright, smart 8-year-old girl. I got to know her better over the next few years, before she ultimately moved away to another town on the Reservation. We kept in touch via Facebook occasionally over the years. And then, one day last spring, I learned she had died by suicide.

Too many children on Native American reservations grow up seeing suicide as an easy, accessible escape from their daily lives. This situation is the norm on reservations, where the ancestors of these kids were forced to live and never leave; where their relatives were killed at the hands of the government; where their living grandparents were forced into boarding schools, told that being Lakota was a sin, and forced to forget their language and culture; where there is a current culture of apathy in response to it all. It is here, on these reservations, that the federal government needs to make amends for the problems that it engineered, and to protect the lives of the children who are facing this reality. These communities need to be supported on an institutional level—to be given the opportunity to start to heal and self-determine their own future.

My work on the ground with Simply Smiles has inspired me to focus my energy toward addressing the mental health crisis on the Cheyenne River Reservation, and in Indian Country at large. Though I continue to love my work as a volunteer coordinator, the youth suicide epidemic on reservations throughout our country is one problem that needs more attention from the federal government and demands appropriate policies and support.

As such, I have decided to go to graduate school to learn more about mental health issues on both a clinical and policy level in order to work to develop mental health programs and facilities in reservation communities. With the foundation of my experience with Simply Smiles, these aspirations can be made into reality with a further education. I am happy to announce that I have been accepted to the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. Beginning this fall, this program will allow me to focus on youth and adolescent mental health policy, as well as gain clinical experience.

As much as it will hurt to not be directly working with Simply Smiles starting this August, working on mental health policy for reservation communities is where I believe I need to focus my attention for now, so that I can increase the scope of my impact. I have always believed, and still fully believe, in the Simply Smiles model that invests in the power of creating a smile that can build self worth and confidence and that is the first step to a brighter future. A big part of me would like to continue this work to focus on our kids on the Reservation, in Oaxaca, and their dreams. But I also want to tackle the issue from a different angle. I believe that systemic change requires both on-the-ground activists and well-informed policy makers working together, and earning my Master’s degree from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration will hopefully be my first step in pushing for change at a higher level.

I will be on the Reservation and in Mexico as much as possible throughout these next few years, sharing my new experiences, my goals, and dreams, with all of our kids. Simply Smiles will of course continue to fight every day for our kids and the brighter futures that they deserve.

Thank you to everyone in the Simply Smiles community who has supported me and our work. And a special thanks to our friends in Oaxaca and on the Reservation who inspire me each day. Simply Smiles will always be part of who I am and where I go.

Thank you,


Teamwork makes the dreamwork:  Sam and her former college basketball teammates from Saint Michael's College in Vermont worked with teens on the Reservation to host a basketball tournament.

Teamwork makes the dreamwork: Sam and her former college basketball teammates from Saint Michael's College in Vermont worked with teens on the Reservation to host a basketball tournament.

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)