Last Saturday, Bryan and I flew west to start our week on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, my first opportunity to visit La Plant. I have heard endless stories, seen thousands of pictures, and listened to the Fleet Foxes song that plays over the beautiful Reservation Volunteer Season video countless times now, yet I still had no idea what my week on the Rez would bring.Read More
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This summer, we spent almost three months working, living, eating, crying, and laughing in this community – a community that, even though it is physically located in the domestic United States, is a sovereign third-world country inhabited by a people systematically annihilated since the spread of Manifest Destiny.Read More
Hi all! We are nearing the end of an absolutely tremendous summer on the Reservation, but we still have two more groups coming who are going to do some serious hard work. I'm writing to you from Fran and Ed Graves (Kristen's parents)'s lovely Green Bay home, where the Reservation crew is taking a few days off from rebuilding the La Plant community center, leading summer camps for 40 kids aged 2-14, driving our big red bus, doing home construction and repair, and serving community meals to over 85 people. I apologize for not updating as often as I should have - in a story that I will elaborate on in a bit, we haven't had Internet or very much electricity in the community center since the ceiling collapsed. So, here I am, attempting to summarize a truly incredible summer in a short blog post, which I hope will convey just a bit of the inspiring work our volunteers have done these past eight weeks. It's hard to even think back to the beginning of the summer, because it seems like forever ago - and, to put it in perspective, eight weeks flies here. In the time we've been on the Reservation, we've hosted 24 community meals, worked on three huge home construction projects, played for 40 days of summer camp, and worked with 6 AWESOME groups of volunteers. It it so humbling to think about all of the time, effort, and sacrifice that has happened on the part of our volunteers, and the hard work and fun times that have been had.
So, the community center. While the roof didn't ACTUALLY collapse (don't worry, things aren't THAT dramatic around here), we did help it a bit to come down. During the re-roofing that Kristen wrote about in her last blog post, we realized that the ceiling and walls of the community center in La Plant weren't living up to the standard of excellence that the roof was conveying. So, our volunteers bravely donned masks, gloves, and goggles to begin a deconstruction project (a fun change from the usual construction projects). We tore down the ceiling and
walls, removed all of the gross mousey insulation, and the community center is now down to its bare stud bones. We have big plans for its renovation, including beautiful wood paneling and Josh (our photographer and BFF)'s portraits of the kids on the Reservation. It's very exciting living on a construction site, but Gaby might say differently, as she was without a kitchen for the better part of last week. Now, our kitchen is all plugged in, we have full electrical and Internet capabilities, and we await the next group with high hopes for the building. We're also making great progress with our other projects, winterizing and renovating trailer homes. Commando-crawling under a trailer was not something I expected to do with my college degree, nor was it something I thought I would enjoy. However, if anyone needs someone to drag heavy plastic sheeting and spread it neatly in a 10'x100' patch of dirt with 2' of crawling space, you've got your girl - I loved it! And the groups did too, overcoming fears and really ratcheting up their awesomeness in the process.Another really cool and exciting update about the summer is the overall community feeling here. Last summer, one of the struggles that the Simply Smiles staff faced was the town-wide meal. Getting people to attend was a struggle, but the staff really believed that perseverance was the way to go, and so they pushed through to provide meals all summer. This year, we decided to triple our efforts, increasing the meals from one a week to THREE meals a week, and this seems to have been the key. On our last community meal on Friday, we served stuffed fry bread (a Lakota favorite) and cherry wojapi (MY favorite). We had over 100 people from town attend, eat, talk and catch up with each other under the pole barn. They've played huge town-wide games of baseball, met volunteers from all over the country (and the world!), and ate some really delicious food prepared by the unstoppable Gaby.
We've also had the honor this summer of being the audience for traditional Lakota drumming. Some of our friends on the Reservation have worked hard to preserve the musical culture of the Lakota, and we are lucky enough to be invited to hear it. We were also so, so lucky to, when the old drum was taken from La Plant, to receive enough donations in just a few hours to buy a brand new drum for the community. It is made of a hollowed out cottonwood tree and tanned buffalo hide and sounds amazing - the booming sound, we're told, is because the hair is still intact on the inside of the buffalo skin. Christiana painted the town's name on the surface of the drum and a medicine wheel, completed by the outline of Bryan's hand and the Simply Smiles colors. What an honor to be remembered in this way! Truly humbling.
Next week, our Mixed Group is arriving in La Plant for a week of hard work and strong friendships. Afterward, we look forward to the group from Woodmont Congregational Church to help us wrap up the summer. It's going to be an awesome few weeks; I can't wait.
Until next time,
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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 bit...so 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!
Hello, loyal bloggers! Today I'm writing to you from the Rapid City airport, waiting on my flight back to Connecticut. Unfortunately, today I head back to CT for two weeks to take care of some general office work before going back to La Plant and the Cheyenne River Sioux Valley Reservation. We arrived in La Plant on Monday afternoon and it has been a heck of a few days. The first thing we did upon arrival was look at the area. As this was my first time on the Reservation, I needed a pretty in-depth tour. The landscape of La Plant is pretty spectacular: rolling fields as far as the eye can see, dotted by the occasional house, barn, and herd of cattle. As soon as we crossed the Missouri River, which is the dividing line between the Reservation and South Dakota proper, we stopped for a quick dip in the river and a discussion of what the week would have in store for us. Over an hour of driving later, we arrived at the community center in La Plant to begin our tremendous summer.
We arrived and were quickly greeted by some of our friends. When we went up to town to get a key for our water spigot, about 15 kids ran out of their houses to meet us. With permission, they climbed into the back of the truck to come back to the community center with us - a huge change in their relationship with us since last summer, when we struggled for trust with the children at camp. They laughed and climbed into the truck, all yelling with excitement, as we drove back to the center with some strong helping hands.
The first major task at hand was to unload the bus, and this was not a small job. It took the five of us (Bryan, Josh, Haley, Gaby, and Christiana) plus about 15 helpful kids several hours to unload all of the awesome donations. The kids, of course, took periodic breaks to play with the water squirters (to the great dismay of Chip and Maddie... and Josh) and to ask, "What's in this box? What's in here?" They're really pumped for all of the summer camp stuff, and all of the clothing and blanket donations we put in storage to be given out at Christmas and other exciting times of the year.
The kids absolutely LOVE the bus as well. As soon as they came to visit us, they were jumping on it, playing with the door, and running up and down the aisles. Unfortunately, that curious nature quickly led them to the horn, which honked ceaselessly for about an hour. To bring them home that night, Bryan explained the rules of the bus and gave the kids their first ride on the #bigredbus. They all listened to the rules, and kept asking when camp was going to start so that they could be picked up again. Looks like Operation Big Red Bus was a success!
Yesterday was spent readying the community center for our first set of volunteers - East Haddam Congregational Church, who arrive on Saturday. We cleaned the building from top to bottom, emptied out an old storage room that was stacked floor-to-ceiling with old boxes and mouse nests, and mowed and weed whacked the lawn. We also went to measure for the first construction project of the summer: roofing! An inventory was made of all of our food and supplies and today, while I sit in airports, Bryan, Josh, Christiana, and Gaby will be on a huge shopping trip for food, construction materials, and, of course, dog food. We also picked up our other truck and trailer to haul everything that gets bought today back to the Reservation.
As you can see, we've been busy over here! We're really excited to get started with the first round of volunteers; we have a lot of really awesome stuff in store. Building projects, summer camps, THREE community meals a week plus a movie night - things are all falling into place for the summer of the #bigredbus.
Have a great week, everyone! I'm looking forward to getting back to the Reservation the first week of July. Until then, keep looking for updates on the first two groups and be sure to look for pictures on our Facebook page!
Your loyal blogger,
Hi all! Today, the big red Simply Smiles bus left its cozy home of Fairfield, CT for its maiden voyage to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota. I write to you from the Super 8 Motel in Clearfield, PA, about 340 miles from Fairfield.
It's been an awesome day. After a 9 am departure (okay, 9:15), we hit the road with Bryan finally putting to use that CDL he worked so hard for. The weather was beautiful, the tunes were rockin' (we had a great 90's mix tape going for most of the trip, with some Bruce Springsteen thrown in for good measure), and the bus was truckin'.
As far as the bus's loyal crew is concerned, there are 5 humans and 2 dogs: Bryan, Gaby, myself (Haley Brown), Josh Dufresne, and Christiana Whitcomb - joined by the unfailingly energetic Chip and Josh's dog, Maddie. It's a great group of people and we've had a lot of laughs already. We stopped for a quick stretch at a lake in Pennsylvania (a lake that's name is now escaping me) and the dogs went wild, swimming and playing fetch. Those of us dumb enough to accompany the dogs on the dock were soaked almost immediately; Gaby watched from a rock and laughed at our poor judgement.
After we set up camp at the motel, Bryan, Christiana, Chip, and I decided to go for a run and had our courage truly tested when we had an almost near-death experience with some wildlife. We were all running and Chip, as it were, made a sudden dart to the left directly into my running path. I quickly hopped out of the way, only to have my foot land not three inches from the belly of a woodchuck. Startled, we both stared at each other and decided the best course of action to get away. Running away was the best option for both parties, but unfortunately we ran in the same directly. Woody (that's his name) made a break for it right into my sneaker and I almost died of a heart attack.
We stopped in for grub at the Dutch Pantry, an awesome space sporting hand-woven baskets and antique tools for decoration and mason jars for drinking. There were shelves of jams and jellies for sale and the whole place smelled like cinnamon. Truly a unique spot that one can only find on the road.
Tomorrow, we hope to make it to Indiana. That's as far west as I've been!
Make sure to watch our Twitter page at @simplysmilesinc for real-time updates on the progress of the #bigredbus. You never know what tomorrow will bring.