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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 group

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: First Church of Stamford, take two!

Alex Gross

We often say one of the most challenging elements of volunteering at our project sites is how to best articulate all of the things that happen over the course of day and to share these occurrences with friends and loved ones back home. While we do follow a schedule and have plans for the week, there are a number of events - small or large - that can make the volunteer experience even more memorable. In this Field Note, our friends from the First Congregational Church of Stamford, Connecticut try their hand at describing parts or reflections from their days, with snippets from numerous volunteer perspectives! We're happy to have the Stamford crew back on the Reservation this week - their second volunteer experience with us!

No rest for the weary! It's right to work on Sunday for our Stamford friends, including pellet shed construction ! (La Plant, August 2016)

No rest for the weary! It's right to work on Sunday for our Stamford friends, including pellet shed construction ! (La Plant, August 2016)

"Yesterday was the 'lazy Sunday' here in La Plant, although the definition of lazy out here must be different from what we are used to because, by the end of the day, I think we were all feeling exhausted and ready for a good night's rest. We were privileged to be given an amazing tour by Sam, who so eloquently spoke about the reality of life in this town and on the Reservation. It is something hard to put into words and yet she did it so well, I know that I wished that I could have recorded her and played it back so that when asked what it is like here I could have her words inspire everyone like they did me. She said that it is 'tangible hopelessness' and yet come time for the town wide dinner at the end of the day I felt as though it had shifted in just a year's time to become a tangible hope. More people attended the community dinner than I had seen attend any single event last year. Children grabbed our hands and pulled us to the playground. I can remember last year beginning the process of building the playground. Digging the holes that would be foundation for the swingset and building the rock wall. It’s amazing how it has become the center for the children's play and an icebreaker for people of all ages. Here's to more play to come." ­ - Emma Jelliffe

Pillow-making fun at camp! (La Plant, August 2016)

Pillow-making fun at camp! (La Plant, August 2016)

"Positivity encourages progress. Something as small as watching my cousin push a child on a swing are drastic changes for the Lakota people. Last year, it would have taken days for them to be comfortable to be around us in such a way. To see them so open to the new people this year is truly a sight to behold. Anyone from the trip last year can attest to this. But my favorite part of the day was watching my grandmother. Yes, the leader of the group and one of the older members, years do not apply to her. I watched her conversate with the good Lakota people of La Plant whether in their cars or on a bench she asked about their lives and how things have changed. She followed the children to the playground, or 'park' as they love to call it, and pushed them on swings. She even climbed to the top of the climbing wall and watched the youth of La Plant, the sun go down. And there sitting beside her I noticed an amazing thing. A boy we had previously met before who bluntly called people names and swore and cursed at my grandmother was now beside her laughing and holding her hand. What a great change this place has hope! What great change, this place has promise. What great change this place has a future." ­ - Shanika Bello

Learning about horses - and taking a spin! - at camp on Monday! (La Plant, August 2016)

Learning about horses - and taking a spin! - at camp on Monday! (La Plant, August 2016)

"Coffee tastes good this morning with the wind blowing across the extraordinary land. Sleep came easily last night after a busy day painting the ceilings in the two new houses being built this summer. The town wide dinner was so well attended ­ lots of children enjoying the playground constructed last summer. How much fun to watch the teenage boys and girls playing a competitive game of basketball ­ the girls are amazing. I am honored to be here again this year. ­  

"Monday was a productive day of flooring, painting, molding, stucco, taping. Camp was fantastic: 37 pillows made, drawing, friendship bracelets, basketball, playground, music camp. A friend brought his horses for the kids to ride. Evening brought heat lightning to light up the massive sky, followed by thunder and rain and cooler night temps. A great day!" - ­ Leslie Loop

Intense puzzle piecing and getting crafty at camp!

Intense puzzle piecing and getting crafty at camp!

"Good afternoon in camp. Quality time with master puzzle maker and budding artist!"­ - Bob Loop

"As we stood outside doing the dishes from last night's dinner we were privileged to witness the most spectacular sunsets, absolutely jaw dropping. Life has a way of restoring your soul, of giving you what you need if you simply stay open to it! Another highlight of the day was riding a horse!!" -­ John Jelliffe

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.  


Field Notes from the Reservation: Settling in, adjusting to temperatures, and muddy play day fun!

Alex Gross

The following Field Notes are from Silver Lake Conference Center and Essex Congregational Church volunteers Joanne Taber and Katie Holden.

We arrived on Saturday evening to a 100 degree Big Red bus ride. The 19 of us settled in and went to bed in the community center after a delicious dinner. 

On Sunday morning, we all woke up an hour early and headed off on a tour of the Sam D. Horse Community Center and the town of La Plant. That evening, we enjoyed meeting the townspeople at a town-wide meal of macaroni and cheese (secret ingredient: cauliflower!). The night concluded with a rousing game of kickball before dark. 

Monday morning was our first day of work and camp. The temperature dropped to 60 degrees with clear skies. We worked on the edge of the basketball court, painted the side of the rock wall, continued work on the pellet sheds for the new houses, started construction of the garden shed stairs, cut out two buffaloes, and completed other odd jobs.

Inner artist:  Mary from the Silver Lake group expertly paints a "Starry Night"-inspired buffalo to add to our whimsical herd that dots the prairie around the Community Center in La Plant. (A.Gross, La Plant, August 2015)

Inner artist: Mary from the Silver Lake group expertly paints a "Starry Night"-inspired buffalo to add to our whimsical herd that dots the prairie around the Community Center in La Plant. (A.Gross, La Plant, August 2015)

Tuesday, we woke up to pouring rain, Gumbo mud, and fallen temperatures. In typical Simply Smiles manner, we adjusted and had a fun and flexible day. Progress was made on all jobs with a focus on painting rooms in new houses, new road signs, buffalo models, and the final rock wall side. Construction started on the new and improved movie screen that has been in the works for a year!

We look forward to the next three days as we continue to build our new relationships. 

Muddy day fun on the new playground!  Nothing deterred the kids from having fun after quite the rainstorm on Tuesday! (Z.Gross, La Plant, August 2015)

Muddy day fun on the new playground! Nothing deterred the kids from having fun after quite the rainstorm on Tuesday! (Z.Gross, La Plant, August 2015)

Field Notes from the Reservation: Well worn hands, open hearts

Alex Gross

Today’s unique Field Note is brought to you by Lucy Burr and Stephanie Stewart, both first-time volunteers from Essex and Farmington, Connecticut respectively. They are part of a mixed group of volunteers who have met for the first time here in South Dakota! Today, they reflect on what they've learned from their first few days with us here in La Plant.

It is night four and we nine volunteers agree:

  1. The dedication of the Simply Smiles founder and staff is amazing in its work ethic, cultural respect, resolve, patience, determination, kindness and inspiration.

  2. The work to be done in La Plant is hard, emotional, uplifting, and so much more.

  3. We came prepared to use our hands.

  4. We are surprised at the pain in our hearts.

  5. Our impatience urges us to give and do, which is faster than teaching.

  6. We are frustrated by OUR people’s political/administrative mistreatment.

  7. We enjoy celebrating this community’s dance contest winners at the annual powwow.

  8. The kids are eager to see the smiles greeting them at camp, ready to give them our full attention in a friendly place and spend a few hours on a summer day.

Helping hands in the garden! These young farmers helped to harvest garlic in the garden! (A.Gross, July 2015, La Plant)

Helping hands in the garden! These young farmers helped to harvest garlic in the garden! (A.Gross, July 2015, La Plant)

Field Notes from the Reservation: "We still have so much work to do"

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by volunteer Christy Wright, Director of Youth Ministries at Sudbury Methodist Church and is working this week with her Gales Ferry friends.

One of the most difficult mysteries of life to understand is the tension of celebration and sorrow, deep joy and great mourning. We admit that this world is beautiful, but we also acknowledge its brokenness. We are working toward a better life, but we still have so much work to do.

At the airport, Sam met us with the famous big red bus, bearing the love letters of previous volunteers inscribed across the ceiling. We pulled out of the parking lot, dropping the bus windows with the breeze pouring in. Even the air smelled different. It’s rich and organic, musky and heavy with life. With a folksy soundtrack emanating from the crackly bus speakers, we passed through fields of corn, soy, and sunflowers; giant cylindrical bales of hay dotted the landscape, and telephone poles punctuated the scenery like long, narrow picture frames. We could almost perceive the clouds’ movement as they shift shapes and drift lazily against the deep blue sky. The sun began to set behind us, and we breathed it all in. The push and pull of the wind bounced through one open window and out another, brushing through our hair as we began our new adventure.

Our first few days of work oriented us around the Reservation and the needs of families, kids, and the greater community. From a patchwork of stories to the history of the people, we observed and listened, realizing that we simply cannot understand the depth of their hearts. It continues to become more real as we interact with the kids during camp. The kids know that Simply Smiles is here for them; the organization’s presence over the past several years is evidence of their deep love. But we still have so much work to do.

Goofing around at camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Goofing around at camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

One day at camp this week, there was a small boy playing with Legos at one of our colorful picnic tables; he had built a well-fortified structure, housing two action figures: one was tan, the other was blue. I asked if I could join in, and his response made my heart drop. “Yes, you can play. We’re different colors,” he said as he handed me the tan soldier, “so we’re enemies.” 

It was such a simple response, but it raises so many questions. I’m positive this boy meant nothing by it, but it may evidence the very real racism that is still present across North America. Rather than being innately racist, his comment may have been just a statement of reality as he saw it. Its systemic, ingrained presence feels almost as undeniable as the blue of the sky.

We still have so much work to do.

This is not to say that progress isn’t being made. There are success stories and amazing landmarks that we reach everyday. Perhaps the best example of the love we are witness to is in the genuine laughter of the kids, sometimes at our expense. Many times today, water balloons were broken over our heads, but the momentary surprise and rush of freezing water is well worth the mischievous grins and raucous giggles.

We are working toward a better life.

This evening, we welcomed several local artisans to the community center to share their talents with us. From handmade bracelets and necklaces, to dream catchers and earrings, we found beauty in their creations and in the creators. To the soundtrack of local drummers, we danced under the South Dakota stars, lightning flashing before us, illuminating the clouds. Behind us, the fiery sunset produced perfect gradients of color. As the drums’ booming faded into the night, quiet conversations with members of the community continued as the bugs began to bite and the crickets sung their song into the darkness.

It’s moments like these that confirm our humanity, our reality. There is so much complex and intricate beauty in our world, and so many injustices that pierce our lives, but we must do our part. We are working toward a better life, but we still have so much work to do.

Field Notes from the Reservation: Settling in, tapping into talents

Alex Gross

This week's Field Note is brought to you by first-time Reservation volunteer Janet Huley. 

Last night (Sunday), Simply Smiles hosted a large group of families of all ages during its town-wide meal.  Teenaged boys and girls flocked to the recently-completed basketball court and divided into teams with mostly the younger interns and volunteers. 

Parents and grandparents sat down and were eagerly served delicious vegetable pasta with watermelon salad. Some of the ingredients were from the garden and greenhouse behind the big sign that serves as a windbreak and declares to the passing traffic, “La Plant Grows Its Own Food!” One boy asked me suspiciously what the red cubes were in his salad, so I asked him to taste them and tell me if they were a vegetable or a fruit. “Fruit!” he declared. I tried to get him or his brother to sit still for a sketch, but all I could manage were some features before they joined in the games with all the other kids. 

I got two sisters to sit for their portrait for longer and found that there were many critics their age who would take a look and assure the sister “It doesn’t look like you!” The older sister told me that I didn’t draw very well, so I responded that I was rusty and needed more practice; perhaps after drawing for awhile I would do better. She then offered to draw my portrait, and while drawing she kept saying she wasn’t a good drawer and she didn’t know how. She was very hard on herself. I kept telling her that she should draw what pleases her, and never mind what she thought it should look like - to draw it the way she saw it, and if she liked it, that was the most important thing. Her picture of me was wonderful, with many details like my earrings and clothes. I got to keep her picture of me and in turn, she asked for and I gave her my portraits of her, her sister, and her cousins. 

I talked with some of the parents and grandparents and some were outgoing and gregarious, while some were shy and reserved. Everyone lingered over the meal, and we discussed the new playground that I could see would really help. Sometimes the younger children are hesitant to join in on basketball with the older kids, and so they need a safe place to play where people can keep a watchful eye on them!

Monday began our workday. We had assignments, some of which were geared toward our interests and talents. I was working in designing and implementing a book club sign with several other very talented, creative people. We sketched it out and tried out different designs before finding a suitable piece of wood for the sign and the books we wanted to hang on it. We decided that each book title that the club read would be painted on a little piece of wood with the year, and placed on the sign. We found painting supplies and divided up the work, in addition to priming and painting signs for the vegetable garden. 

A new sign is created to celebrate Book Club milestones! Each book completed will be marked on the Book Club board! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

A new sign is created to celebrate Book Club milestones! Each book completed will be marked on the Book Club board! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Next to us, my husband, who is also volunteering this week, was working on building a tent for holding music camp. He was in his element working with a team of enthusiastic volunteers digging stakes and assembling this tent that will shade a group of kids on Tuesday. Elsewhere, a group was preparing the ground for the playground, and everyday we share the chores of everyday living.

Earlier we toured an almost-finished house, and a house in progress. Inspired by the future, we were told we were going to help unload two new houses - by hand! - to be delivered this week.

Summer camp brought back some of the kids we had seen on Sunday, and we were ready with many activities. I couldn’t get anyone to allow me to paint their face, but they did allow me to paint buffalo, suns, basketballs, Minions, and wolves howling at the moon on their hands and arms. In turn, I got a Minion on my hand and some blue faceprint, too. Kids tie-dyed bandanas, decorated treasure boxes, drew with chalk, played beanbags and made friendship bracelets. 

In the reading nook, I was privileged to have one read a whole book out loud to me. 

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)

Field Notes from the Reservation: The weight of being present

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by Jackie Plavnicky, who is volunteering with our friends from Monroe and South Granby this week in La Plant. Note: The following post discusses subject matter that may be unsuitable or sensitive for younger audiences.

I have grown to really appreciate my friends and family, as these past couple days have been quite intense. I was hit hard when, on the first day we arrived, I learned that a 14-year-old girl from a nearby town -- a girl whom many kids in La Plant knew -- had killed herself. She was not too much younger than me, or any of the youth on this trip for that matter. There is such a sense of normalcy within the children on the Reservation when it comes to suicide in such a way that is way beyond horrifying. The people and children here do not know just how amazing, relevant, and important they are. I am sure everyone here would agree that this needs to change, and soon.

I apologize if the paragraph above makes life here sound horrible and tragic because that is only a fraction of what is happening during my experience with Simply Smiles. The people here are amazing, from the children on the Reservation to the friendly adults, and definitely the people I am traveling with. The children here may not have welcomed us with open arms, especially since we arrived just after they lost someone close to them, but they warmed up to us eventually. 

If they are given time, the children can be the most adorable, energetic and playful children I have ever had the chance to spend time with. One of the little girls, Joshlynn, was the first child to accept me with open arms (literally). She begged me for a piggyback ride, and our friendship grew from there. I found myself getting more and more attached to this amazing girl, as well as her friends Madison and Angel. Angel is also one of the sweetest kids I have met. On the first day, the group had the pleasure of meeting all the children, he came up to me and gave me a hug. After I got over the initial sense of surprise, I hugged the young boy back and got to know him through crafts and games. 

After spending so much time with these children, I know I am going to have a hard time leaving them. The bonds I have made with them have grown more than I thought possible prior to this trip. 

Piggyback rides are always a hit with the kids! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

Piggyback rides are always a hit with the kids! (A.Gross, La Plant, July 2015)

This bond has also formed a weight on my shoulders (that I am more than happy to carry) to make sure these friends on the reservation get the help and support that they deserve. 

I want to see little Sunshine and her sister playing in the soon-to-be finished playground. I want to one day see Joshlynn innocently playing with her friends without the depressing feeling in the air. I want to see each and every child (and adult, of course) happy and content. I know that this is an incredibly hard task to take on -- one that may exceed my generation, unfortunately -- but I need to hold on to the hope that things will change. 

With the support that I will gather from those around me after this trip, I hope to better the conditions here, even if the change is minuscule.

Field Notes from the Reservation: Hard work, rewarding smiles

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note recapping the Wapping Community Church's first few days in La Plant is brought to you by youth volunteers Mike Fialkoff and Aly Dansereau and chaperone Nancy Bassilakis.

Fun with face paint at camp!

Fun with face paint at camp!

Monday was a sweltering summer day in the plains of South Dakota, a far cry from the scenery of South Windsor, CT. A mix of high school students and adults have worked diligently to contribute to the efforts and philosophy of Simply Smiles.

Shocked by the immense difference between the lifestyles of the residents of the Reservation and our group, we worked intently on improving the outlook of all of those involved in the Simply Smiles experience. Our day today was one of the hardest and dirtiest that we have ever experienced, but the Simply Smiles ideals have kept us persevering for the sake of those who we are here for. 

By interacting with the energetic children, we have been able to realize that they are no different than children back home. They are shy when you first meet them, but eventually warm up to you with a game of Ball-tag or signing your name in their notebook.

In just a few hours, friendly relationships have been formed and we look forward to spending more time with the kids.

Though our week has just begun, we have already been able to acknowledge the impact that we have had on the community and imagine the improvements that can only further help. This trip thus far has proven to be one of the most rewarding experiences and will continue to be throughout and after our time here at Simply Smiles. 

-Aly and Mike

On Tuesday, we continued to work on projects around the community center in the morning and at the summer camp in the afternoon. Although the official work project time is less than four hours, we have been able to accomplish so much. Our group has divided and conquered over the past few days, tackling projects that most of us have never done before. Between installing light fixtures and house finishing, to the laborious and heavy concrete mixing, we have broken our backs (figuratively) several times over. Our kids are giving their all to this community, both physically and emotionally. 

Planning for play:  Our friends from Wapping work with Emma and Sam to prepare the ground and border for an upcoming playground project!

Planning for play: Our friends from Wapping work with Emma and Sam to prepare the ground and border for an upcoming playground project!

We end each day with a community circle. Our 23 youth and 6 advisors talked about what we have seen and experienced here on the Reservation. Bryan (the founder of Simply Smiles) had spoken at our church and told us about the level of poverty on the Reservation. But even that did not prepare us for what we have seen. Although the prairie is vast and beautiful, the remoteness of this place is startling. Compared to Connecticut, there is nowhere to go, nothing to do. No jobs, no recreation center, no retirement home, no preschool program, no grocery store, no doctor, no vet for all of the stray dogs (which the kids have quickly become attached to), no anything. 

Last night, we sat in a circle and processed our thoughts thus far, sharing our surprises, our joys, and our wishes for the people of LaPlant. They talked about how cars and campers and motorcycles just drive by on their way to their destination and never realize the struggles of the people who live in La Plant. They talked about the remoteness of the people who live here without cars with a sense of shock. How do they survive without a grocery store nearby?

And they talked about the joy on the children’s faces when you play basketball, or build LEGOs, or let them paint your face. I sat in the circle listening to our compassionate youth with tears in my eyes. Tears of sorrow for the challenges that face the children of La Plant, and tears of joy that our children see the challenges and know that they are making a difference. 

To everyone who supported our mission to La Plant, South Dakota, not only have you made a positive impact on the people of La Plant through sending our youth out here to build houses and playgrounds, but you have changed all of us in so many ways as well. The depth of compassion and love that we are developing will be something that we will carry with us of the rest of our lives. Thank you.

- Nancy

Field Notes from the Reservation: Perception versus reality of the Plains

Alex Gross

Today, our Field Note is brought to you by volunteers Delaney, Sofia, Lauren, and Gaby from the Palmer Trinity School in Miami, Florida, who are spending the week in La Plant with us!

Spending a week on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation is nothing like we imagined it would be - we pictured empty plains of grass, filled with roaming buffalo and tipis scattered throughout the landscape. These may be typical images from the movies but, in reality, it is far from it.

While spending time on the Reservation these past couple of days, we realized that our imaginations were heavily influend by media and that we didn’t take time to think about how life on the Reservation has drastically changed with time. This Simply Smiles trip has introduced us to the real world of the Lakota, and these stereotypical images has been erased.

Fun building at camp!  (Z.Gross, June 2015, La Plant, S.D.)

Fun building at camp! (Z.Gross, June 2015, La Plant, S.D.)

We've realized that the people in La Plant are some of the most genuine, caring people that we've ever met, and the fact that our country attempted to eradicate them makes us ashamed.

Some of the families on the Reservation may be broken, but to see the children’s smiles warms our hearts. Their resilience amazes us.  We have connected with the children during camp, carried them on our backs, and played endless games. We spent an afternoon in a cooking class where we made conversation with some of the elders and heard their stories of how our government shamed them for speaking in their native tongue.

This Simply Smiles trip, especially interacting and talking to the people here in La Plant, has opened our eyes to how dangerous our preconceived notions can be and, at the same time, just how wrong they really are. 

Many hands:  The Palmer Trinity School crew helped to install six wall panels on a new home for a great family in La Plant!

Many hands: The Palmer Trinity School crew helped to install six wall panels on a new home for a great family in La Plant!

Field Notes from the Reservation: Gaining confidence, building dreams

Zach Gross

Sunday morning on the Cheyenne River Reservation consisted of a tour of La Plant that helped our group gain perspective and knowledge about the town. The afternoon included time on some work projects -- moving wall panels for a new home over to the build site and improvements to the town's community center. This introduction to the week ahead made us thirsty for more. Sunday concluded with a delicious town-wide dinner, and a confidence-building softball game that helped us to interact with the community and kids.

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Field Notes from the Reservation: Processing the last day of the volunteer week

Alex Gross

The final Field Note for the week from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point volunteer group is brought to you by Vanessa Vincent. 

Our last and most exciting day at Simply Smiles: It was a cold and windy morning but members of the community and the Simply Smiles crew still made the effort to walk side-by-side for the morning mile.

While conversing with community members through out the week, I was honored to be able to hear their stories and their experiences.

On Friday, I was so proud to see the children perform at a concert at their school, in which they sang Lakota songs, played the flute, and hoop danced with Lakota storyteller, musician and dancer Kevin Locke. At the end of the program, our crew was asked to dance the friendship dance, or round dance, with the children.  

The group learns how to hoop dance from the kids at a special presentation at the school! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

The group learns how to hoop dance from the kids at a special presentation at the school! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

Vanessa teaches the kids a few new tunes during camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

Vanessa teaches the kids a few new tunes during camp! (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

I feel sad to leave the friends that I have made during my experience with Simply Smiles, especially after working alongside them and talking with the people here. The kids at camp were excited about the games that we provided, and I was so happy that some of them enjoyed playing the piano and singing songs! I was able to teach some of the girls a song on the piano by writing down the notes. The next day one of the girls came to camp and had already learned how to play the song I had taught them! I was thrilled! 

I will take my experience at Simply Smiles back home with me and share what I have learned. I feel I have a broader perception about LaPlant and its community, and I will remember the memories our UWSP crew have made here with Simply Smiles. 

Field Notes from the Reservation: Learning beyond the classroom

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by volunteer Kayla Skaletski, a social work and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Today was a great day on the Cheyenne River Reservation with Simply Smiles. We started off the day with the Walk On! program, in which community members - both adults and children - joined us to walk around the school's track. The program seems to have a significant impact on the community, especially the elders.

When staff member Sam explained the significance of the daily mile, it truly showed the dedication of Simply Smiles to not only bringing the community together for another fun activity but also to encourage individuals to carry this healthy habit into other parts of their lives. It shows their commitment to fully enrich the community on every aspect of life from the inside out. 

Ages young and elder appreciate and enjoy the horseshoe pit. It's a place to pass down both traditions and skills. (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

Ages young and elder appreciate and enjoy the horseshoe pit. It's a place to pass down both traditions and skills. (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

The next experience that really stuck out to me was the opportunity to dig the trench by shoveling and bar-breaking the hard South Dakota dirt. I have never felt so good while sweating my butt off, and forming blisters on my hands. It was great because I knew that a very deserving family was going to benefit from my hard work for years to come. Every family has faced hard times, but the members of this community, and this family in particular, have truly faced every challenge possible. This family has been through so much due to historical trauma, economic hard times, continuous prejudice and discrimination by federal programs, and a broken community due to all of these barriers. I wish I could be here when the family finally gets to move in so I can see their priceless reactions of gratitude. 

As a senior undergraduate student with two majors in Social Work & Sociology and a minor in Child Youth Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, I have taken multiple classes in Native American Studies. Throughout these classes, I have had extensive classwork on Native American history and am familiar with the majority of massacres, battles, and broken treaties native peoples and their ancestors have faced.

While I am aware of this horrific history, I have never had the opportunity to experience the impacts of it, and see the challenges it continues to bring to the people in real life. While working with the adults and elders in the community and hearing their stories, I have started to understand history’s impact.

They speak about their current federal housing situations and how it continues to negatively perpetuate their lives. While they are grateful for the housing, it does not help them to live so closely to so many other struggling families. I originally thought it would assist them because of their ability to relate to each other, but I soon realized that how damaging it is because they cannot escape their challenges when they go home. Knowing that we will have the opportunity to help a family escape this continuous traumatic cycle makes all of the physical work more than worth it.

I have had a fun, memorable, and very educational trip so far, and I cannot wait to see what the rest of the week has in store.

Field Notes from the Reservation: Day one - latrine hole digging, ultimate basketball, and having "a hoot and a half"

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is brought to you by volunteers Amber Heil, Kayla Skaletski, and Cassie Van Buren, students from the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point. Below, they describe their first full day (Sunday) in La Plant, full of work projects and meeting the people in town.

Greetings from South Dakota!

Today was a fun-filled day of work and excitement. The first thing on our agenda was a tour of the community and the community center. Sam gave us a lot of information regarding the historical perspectives of the Lakota and locations of the possible work activities we will be helping with throughout the week. After lunch, we chose what activities we wanted to participate in today and went our separate ways. Some of us helped repair broken latches on doors (damaged by South Dakota wind), others painted signs for the garden shed, a couple of us helped to build bunkbeds for all the interns coming this summer, some helped prepare for the community dinner that was held this evening, some organized the craft supplies for camp this week, and the lucky ones helped to start the process of moving the latrines.

The UWSP crew starts building bunk beds!

The UWSP crew starts building bunk beds!

One thing we learned was to not dig too deep around the latrines or you will break the seal and may not like the smell. 

After our work duties, we all helped to set up for the community dinner. We had the opportunity to ride on the bus and pick up community members for the dinner. Everybody was excited for the mac and cheese that was prepared. After dinner, the elders and people that didn’t want to get wet stayed in and talked or played games and everyone else went outside for a game of ultimate basketball. 

Some of us volunteers and some of the kids went outside to play basketball, which was awesome! We couldn't believe how good the kids were! It was so fun. 

It has been a long time since any of us have played in the rain. We were drenched but we had a hoot and a half. We can’t wait for tomorrow to have the first day of camp with the kids!

Field Notes from the Reservation: Taking the story home and to heart each year

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is brought to you by four-time Reservation volunteer, Kerri Colombo, who just returned home to Connecticut after her latest trip to La Plant.

As this is my fourth trip to La Plant, in many ways it feels like returning home. Each year the week seems to pass more quickly than the year before. It feels as though I am just getting reacquainted with my Lakota friends and it is almost time to pack up and leave again.

A friend and elder asked what it is that I think when I return to Connecticut. I explained that I worry for my friends here. I check the weather conditions in La Plant throughout the year and hope that their propane does not run out during the harsh winters.

The freezing cold rain, snow and whipping wind at the beginning of our week in La Plant gave us just a very small taste of the severe conditions of living on the Plains (it was about 27 without taking the wind child into account).

Staying connected with old friends

Staying connected with old friends

My friends and elders did run out of propane this winter. I am thankful that it was a relatively mild one. But in La Plant, 6 degrees is considered mild (it can drop to 50 below zero in the dead of winter.) Still, in their poorly insulated trailer the bitter winter could not be kept at bay. Their children and grandchildren had to move out for a while. It was just too cold. My friends stayed behind. They survived another winter. I am thankful that we were still able to share a meal this spring.

Throughout the year, I wonder if my friends here have enough to eat and if the children are experiencing love and affection each day. I hope that the elders feel connected and cared for, and that friends who struggle with addiction will have a good day and carry on. I fear that my friends will not receive proper medical care.

As I told my friend, it is as much the individuals here as it is the unique Simply Smiles experience that brings me back each year. I believe in the hope for the future of this town, and the approach of the Simply Smiles team.

I feel a connection here that I can't really express, except to say that I look forward to returning again to the special individuals I have been blessed to become connected with. Their stories have become my stories as I feel the threads of their lives interwoven with mine.

Field Notes from the Reservation: Flexibility is fun!

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is brought to you by Jennifer Dupont, a long-time volunteer of Simply Smiles from Naugatuck, Connecticut. Her message: Learning that flexibility can be - and is - fun!

Good afternoon from sunny La Plant, South Dakota! What a difference a day makes! We went from freezing rain and snow to sun and wind in just a 24-hour period. As the Simply Smiles motto goes, "flexibility is fun."

This is my third trip to the Reservation, and I almost didn’t recognize it when we drove up.

There have been so many changes and improvements in just one year: the impressive horseshoe pits, the huge garden and high tunnel, the full size basketball court, the beautiful pow wow grounds and the incredible tipis. 

It is certainly a welcoming place for the children and adults and these features are now a prominent part of their community.

Yesterday was our first day of camp, and the big hit this year is Gordon and Elliott’s Giant Jenga game! They were only half way completed with it and the kids were already having a blast playing. There was coloring, crafting and game playing, but my favorite was the snowball fight with the kids. My only regret was not having brought gloves with me - they would have really been in trouble then!

Balancing act:  The life-size Jenga game required concentration...and lots of deep breaths from participating campers!

Balancing act: The life-size Jenga game required concentration...and lots of deep breaths from participating campers!

We have been working on the garden, getting more beds ready for planting and finishing work on the new house. Not enough hours in the day to get it all in! I am sad when we have to stop working, and I haven’t completed my project but then I realize I get to play with the kids. I am sad when the kids all go home but then I realize how exhausted I am.

I wish I could put into words how much this place and everyone here means to me. I am so grateful and blessed to be able to have this opportunity to be a part of something as special as this.

Thank you Simply Smiles staff and interns for always taking such great care of us!

Now, back to work!

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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Naugatuck on the Reservation: Thursday, May 15, 2014

Timothy Nurnberger

Tomorrow will be the last day for me working on the reservation. I have had ample time to reflect on my experience and what I will take from working with the resilient people of the Lakota Nation. Resilient is an interesting choice of words for me to use. As a helping professional, I have dedicated my life to working with people from different backgrounds and stories, but I have never worked with people that have a history quite like the Lakota.

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