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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: 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

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)

Field Notes from the Reservation: Raising the roof with our volunteers from Lawrence, Kansas

Zach Gross

Below is an update from our youth volunteers from the Plymouth UCC in Lawrence, Kansas, who have returned to volunteer with us on the Cheyenne River Reservation for their third consecutive year!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

High school students from the Plymouth Youth Group from Lawrence, Kansas joined the staff and interns at Simply Smiles in welcoming about 30 children from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation at the start of a week-long summer camp in La Plant, South Dakota.

"[The children at camp] were much more willing to be involved and much more open,” said Calvin DeWitt, who is in his third year of volunteering in La Plant. In previous years, the volunteers needed to work much harder to form relationships with the kids, showing the strides made by Simply Smiles on the Reservation.

On Tuesday, four days into our adventure in La Plant, South Dakota, we raised the roof -- literally.

With Simply Smiles’ founder, Bryan, spearheading the effort, Plymouth volunteers raised three roof trusses on the new volunteer bunkhouse. One group of volunteers moved a roof truss to the top edge of the framed walls and handed the truss to nine members on scaffolding inside the new structure. It was an amazing team effort, just as much of this week has been.

Cooler weather moved in on Tuesday, and while we felt a few sprinkles, the rain held off and lower temperatures made everything easier. In the mix was: a two hour basketball game featuring volunteer Alex Stark vs. the teenage women of La Plant, Liam McKinney and his first power tool, Stefan Schuetz and his team installing OSB sheathing, and Rylee Roberts documenting our trials and successes on film. As Jacob Schepp noted during Tuesday night reflection - Tuesday was a five star day!

Volunteers Siona and Ruby work on painting the inside of a newly-renovated home of a community member.

Volunteers Siona and Ruby work on painting the inside of a newly-renovated home of a community member.

Epic bubble making at summer camp!

Epic bubble making at summer camp!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

We couldn’t feel our toes! But we stayed in the cold water of the Missouri River nonetheless. Why? Because 30+ Lakota youth wanted to splash, swim, jump from the dock, take underwater photography with a Go-Pro, and use their imaginations and new-found friendships to fill an amazing afternoon of camp! On the way home, a six year old fell asleep on volunteer Lourdes’ shoulder and the three Jaiden’s (just one from Plymouth) bonded as they shared a seat on the big red bus.

The river day was a great reward after a full morning of hard work. One team, led by chaperone Mindy Downs, delivered new flooring to a resident’s home, and completed all of their painting projects except the kitchen! A few of our volunteers, including Siona, Rollin, Jaiden, Olivia and Grace, came back to the Community Center with a bit more paint on their bodies and hair than on the walls. Another team hoisted 16 roof trusses into place for the largest roof in Simply Smiles La Plant history, on a new volunteer bunk house! Thanks to Margaret’s awesome communication skills, Peter’s height, and the muscle of Maleena, Schepp, Gabe and many others, it was an amazing illustration of teamwork!


Thursday we enjoyed a special snack of dirt! Several campers participated in making chocolate pudding that we topped with Oreos and gummy worms supporting this week’s camp theme of “Bug, Insect & Spiders Oh My!” Did we mention we got to have Dairy Queen Blizzards on Wednesday evening? When asked if they would return for a second or third year volunteers Olive and Rose chimed in with an enthusiastic, “Yes! And we already have a list of friends to invite with us!”

Lourdes and kids.jpg

Field Notes from the Reservation: Giving voice to those little moments

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is from Jessi Wilcox, one of our amazing, incredibly hardworking summer interns, a dedicated volunteer, and a recent college graduate from the University of New Hampshire. Jessi has spent a significant part of her summer with us on the Reservation. Her insights reflect her commitment to the children of La Plant and her thoughtful outlook on how she plans to bring her experience home.

People say it’s the little things in life that count, which can sound a little cliche, but the more life experience I gain, the more I realize how much truth this statement holds. I am overwhelmed with how to put into words what this summer has taught me, and how much my time as an intern on the Reservation has meant. I am flooded by memories of “little” moments that have each played a role in making this summer so meaningful. There are so many stories and emotions I could share, yet I still find myself trying to find a way to connect these moments to a broader audience. How can I make each of these little things that mean so much to me, mean something to my friends and family when I get home? How can I relay my experiences so that it will reach them, or inspire them to get involved?

As a recent college graduate, most of my conversations with people have revolved around some sort of question about my next steps in life. Leading up to graduation, my friends were applying for jobs to start in the summer and getting themselves ready for their next step into a career. I knew my next step had to be getting more involved with Simply Smiles. I was excited to finally have a summer where I could be on the Reservation for an extended period of time and truly immerse myself in the culture, community, and absorb the experience.

Jessi, always a leader of piggy back rides and a friendly face at camp!

Jessi, always a leader of piggy back rides and a friendly face at camp!

This excitement stemmed from previous years of being a volunteer with Simply Smiles. I first came out to La Plant for a week during the summer of 2013 with a group from home. After such an amazing time, I knew I had to come back, so the following summer, I did! This time, I participated in the Simply Smiles Win A Trip contest. I worked hard to fundraise so that I could not only contribute to the organization that I felt so strongly connected to but also so I could revisit with old friends and lend a helping hand once more. I was fortunate enough to be one of the winners of the contest and had the opportunity to join the Fairfield University volunteer group for a week in August 2014. Returning to the Rez with a large group of strangers was an awesome experience. It was exciting to see the enthusiasm brought by a big group of college students; there were new ideas and lots of energy to carry us through the week.

My involvement this summer as an intern has taught me a great deal. It can sometimes feel overwhelming getting new volunteers every week, but what I have taken from this is to appreciate the new perspectives that they bring, as well as the new energy and interest they possess. It has been amazing to watch the dynamic and relationships built among volunteer groups, staff, interns, community members, and kids. The conversations at town-wide meals, the games and tickles at camp, and the teamwork that goes on at the work sites proves to be a learning experience for everyone involved.

I have also learned a lot about myself and reflected about who I want to be, and where I want to go from here. Something that got me thinking about this was a brief and silly moment with a 4-year-old boy at camp. When he turned to me with a mouthful of spaghetti and a giant grin, blurting out, “Hey! What’s the big idea?!” I couldn't help but smirk at what had just come out of his mouth. Of course, I replied with, “To tickle you!” which was followed with laughter and big smiles.

But, when you actually do think about it, what is the big idea?

This so called “big idea” revolves around kindness, genuine interactions, real, honest conversations, open-mindedness to new perspectives, and sharing stories and moments with all kinds of people. These are the things that make a difference, no matter where we go in life. It is in these moments that I've formed new friendships and shared memorable experiences. Each town-wide meal, day at camp, trip to the Missouri River, mornings at the worksites, the powwow, and wopila have given me new stories to tell when I return home.

Through these stories, I hope to teach others about Lakota culture and to get involved. These stories have the ability to give a voice to the people of La Plant and strike an emotional chord and, hopefully, action in the lives of family and friends back home.

As a return to the East Coast, I am reminded that it is the little things that will have a big impact. I have learned that getting a smile out of a child, or a hug out of an elder may not seem like a big deal, but it is these things that move us forward down a positive path. 

Thank you, Simply Smiles, for capturing the essence of this and continuing to impress me with your love and sincerity. 

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.