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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 Category: Blog | Reservation

The safe space of Simply Smiles: Insights from Summer Camp Director Marina Sachs

Alex Gross

Let this radicalize you, rather than lead you to despair.
— Mariame Kaba, American Activist and Organizer

I'd like to begin with a story from the Fourth of July.

It was a sweltering day on the Reservation at Simply Smiles Summer Camp, and the five hours of camp programming were spent playing outside, creating art, and several much-needed games of water balloon toss. Everyone was excited--campers, volunteers, and staff included--because it was a day of celebration. Evenings during the summer mean many things, but to Simply Smiles Art Camp Coordinator Elizabeth Schweizer and me, they meant Teen Time. 

Teen Time is a program that has developed throughout the past four summers at Simply Smiles as a safe space for teenagers to spend time together. This special window of time, between 6-8 p.m. on weekdays, is now an integral part of the fabric of Simply Smiles programming. 

Teen Time has offered youth, aged 12 and older, the opportunity to engage in college and career prep, cookouts at the Missouri River, Health and Wellness nights, workshops with Marcella Gilbert, art-making, and more. Outside of this window, teenagers have visited Job Corps and Haskell Indian Nations University, organized camping trips to neighboring states, and built and illustrated a tipi with the Keya Foundation. 

The most important component of Teen Time, however, is that the teenagers know that we, at Simply Smiles, are here for them and that we will always provide a safe, stable space for them.

So we're back on the Fourth of July, camp has just ended, and we're getting ready for Teen Time. I distinctly remember a conversation with Elizabeth wherein we wondered, "Are these teenagers even going to want to spend time with us tonight?" It's the Fourth of July, we thought, they would much rather be hanging out with their friends or family. But we pushed our worry aside, and set up for Teen Time. 

An hour later, we sent vehicles driven by our fearless team of interns to pick up teenagers from Swiftbird, Ridgeview, and La Plant. The evening was set up with art and music stations, s'mores and sparklers. Again, the worry crept into the back of my mind, "Why would the teens want to spend time with us at Simply Smiles, when they could be doing something 'cooler'?”

This worry is justified, in many senses, as adolescence is often a time for experimentation, rebellion, self-doubt, and identity development. And yet, at 6 p.m. the vehicles returned to the Community Center, and teenagers poured out. Teens who hadn't been at camp that day, but whose friends had told them about our July 4th gathering showed up. I was ecstatic. 

We spent the evening together--teenagers, interns, staff, and volunteers--playing cards, making music, taking photographs, and having a small cookout-- and it was so special. Sparklers and s'mores, of course, were the highlight of the evening. 

I cannot underscore enough how much it means that these teenagers, each with their own respective lives and stories, chose to spend that evening (and many more summer evenings) with Simply Smiles. At the end of the evening, one of the teenagers shared with me something I won't forget. She said that her family had gone to Sioux Falls for July 4th, but that she chose to stay home because she wanted to spend it with us. And this is not a commentary on her family life, but to underscore the importance of what it means to be truly present for someone else, the significance of building and maintaining a safe space. 

Throughout my adult life, I have worked tirelessly to support the creation of safe, stable spaces for youth. But, until this year, my role with Simply Smiles had been largely corollary. Ellie Storck (Simply Smiles Camp Director '17) and I created the Lakota Youth Speak Project in 2015, and introduced adolescent enrichment as part of Simply Smiles summer programming on the Reservation.

This year, however, I was honored to be the Summer Camp Director. Providing high-impact programming to more than 100 campers over the course of the summer, ages ages 4 to 17, is no easy feat, and I was, admittedly, intimidated. 

I have spent the past five years engaging in youth programming in one way or another. In 2015, I worked at The Country School in Madison, CT, directing their after-school programs and facilitating the first youth-organized TEDx conference in the Northeast. From 2016-2018, I worked with several community organizations that provided programming for underserved youth, most formatively as a visual art educator at Boston Green Academy, a Title-I public school in Boston. Now, pursuing my MFA at the University of Florida, I have continued my commitment to underserved youth through art workshops in incarceration facilities, and as a project organizer in schools and community spaces in Gainesville, Florida.  My fierce commitment to working with underserved youth was built with Simply Smiles on the Reservation. 

When the opportunity to be Summer Camp Director for the 2019 Season was presented, I knew that I could leverage the trust I had built in La Plant with my knowledge of youth programming to, hopefully, generate a successful 15 weeks of Summer Camp. And that we did!

This summer not only saw our highest attendance of youth (more than a hundred campers over the course of the summer!) but provided the most diverse body of activities to date. 

From daily hikes to rocket launches, gymnastics workshops and frisbee golf, foraging expeditions and STEAM learning, our Summer Camp was intentional, engaging, and safe. It would not have been possible without the time and support from our volunteers, the long-term commitment of our fearless intern team, and the full-time energy of the core staff. Yes, it was a lot of moving parts, and took significant planning, but it worked. 

As an ally, there's nothing more important than showing up and being present for our friends. Whether it be through a planned activity, or spending some time on the basketball court, being present for another person is an invaluable gift of reciprocity. 

I want to end with gratitude. If you spent time in La Plant this summer, then you consistently heard me remark in our Friday evening reflections that I am overwhelmed with gratitude to folks who choose to spend time with Simply Smiles. I have seen our summer programming shift and grow so significantly, it's amazing where we are now. Our youth programming now impacts hundreds of folks across several towns, whereas only five years ago it was a few dozen youth from La Plant. At camp, kids now remark that they can't wait to be old enough for Teen Time, and teenagers are having conversations with volunteers about college and future plans.

This kind of space is so special, and so safe for everyone. Our world needs more spaces like this: places for shared common ground, for play, and for community. I am so grateful to be connected to Simply Smiles and know that the future is much brighter because of this organization.

Marina Sachs served as the 2019 Simply Smiles Summer Camp Director and is an artist and educator currently living in Gainesville, FL, teaching and completing her MFA. Working in La Plant since 2015 has significantly altered her life. You can explore Marina’s work at @marina2mp3


Big News! Simply Smiles takes a huge step on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation

Zach Gross

In order to expand the work and impact of Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ has leased Simply Smiles just over 8 acres of their land for a term of 99 years!

On this property (adjacent to the Sam D. Horse Community Center property in La Plant, South Dakota on the Reservation, where Simply Smiles currently runs its programming), we will build additional infrastructure that will work in conjunction with the Community Center property.

This expansion will increase our efforts, grow our partnerships, and allow us to work each day to create the smiles that lead to the brightest possible future for the children of Cheyenne River.

A bright future:  Outlined in orange is the 8.04-acre parcel of land, leased to Simply Smiles by the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ on June 1, 2018. To the right, you can see the La Plant Community Center.

A bright future: Outlined in orange is the 8.04-acre parcel of land, leased to Simply Smiles by the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ on June 1, 2018. To the right, you can see the La Plant Community Center.

Simply Smiles has put down our roots in La Plant, South Dakota. This is the town that welcomed us onto the Reservation almost ten years ago. Now, as we solidify our commitment to the Reservation and to Indian Country at large, we also solidify our commitment and our gratitude to the town of La Plant.

As you can imagine, entering into this lease was a lengthy and at times complicated process. We couldn't have done it without an amazing team that worked together for over two years toward a shared vision for Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

A special thank you to:

  • The Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ, Toni Buffalo, and Louie Blue Coat

  • The South Dakota Conference of the United Church of Christ, Rev. Gordon Rankin, and Attorney Bob Frieberg

  • Shipman & Goodwin, Attorney Sarah Westby, and Attorney Dame Catalan

  • Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton and Attorney David Smith

  • The people of La Plant

  • The Congregational Church members who live in La Plant and helped Simply Smiles to connect with, and develop a relationship with, the Dakota Association.

  • Simply Smiles donors and supporters!

Lease signing:  (Left to right): Simply Smiles Program Manager  Marcella Gilbert ; Simply Smiles Senior Program Manager  Zach Gross ; Simply Smiles President and Founder  Bryan Nurnberger ; Administrator of the Dakota Association of the UCC  Toni Buffalo ; Transitional Associate Conference Minister for the Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota Conferences  Gordon Rankin ; Simply Smiles Board Member  Peter Bayers ; and South Dakota Conference Minister Emeritus  David Felton

Lease signing: (Left to right): Simply Smiles Program Manager Marcella Gilbert; Simply Smiles Senior Program Manager Zach Gross; Simply Smiles President and Founder Bryan Nurnberger; Administrator of the Dakota Association of the UCC Toni Buffalo; Transitional Associate Conference Minister for the Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota Conferences Gordon Rankin; Simply Smiles Board Member Peter Bayers; and South Dakota Conference Minister Emeritus David Felton

Now, to address a few questions:

This is great news! When will Simply Smiles start developing the land?

In the coming years, Simply Smiles will incrementally add the infrastructure we need to the land. We’ll add utility connections and driveways first, then buildings for storage, housing, program implementation, and more! In the immediate future, you may see a Simply Smiles staff member on the land parcel putting in corner markers and/or a sign.

What about the Sam D. Horse Community Center?

Simply Smiles will continue to use the Community Center as the center of all Simply Smiles does on the Reservation. Because of the generosity of Simply Smiles supporters, volunteers, and our partners on the Reservation, we have invested a lot of energy and funding into make the community center in La Plant what it is today. What we build on the new land will be an expansion of the community center infrastructure we've already built.

You are leasing the land from a church group. Is Simply Smiles still a non-religious organization?

Yes. Simply Smiles is not officially connected to any one religion, faith, or belief system. We want to be able to work with anyone who shares our values and our vision. Remaining independent in this way is a central tenant to Simply Smiles programing being open, available, and feeling comfortable for everyone.

Why did Simply Smiles lease the land and not buy it outright?

We chose to lease the land and not buy it out of respect for the Lakota owners of the land. We wanted to make sure that in all of our actions that Simply Smiles is supporting and giving, not taking anything from the Lakota people. By leasing the property, the land stays in the ownership of Lakota people.

How long is the lease?

Simply Smiles is leasing the land from the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ for a term of 99 years. The lease began on June 1, 2018. Over these years, we will use the land to further the vision and mission of Simply Smiles.

Where is the leased property exactly?

The leased property is 8.04 acres and it lies between the Sam D. Horse Community Center land and Main St. The eastern border is the old Iowa Ave, adjacent to the community center. Access is along the western border on Main St, just south of the Congregational Church entrance.

Is everything with the lease solid legally? Land ownership can be a tricky thing on the Reservation...

Absolutely! The land is deeded/fee/non-trust land and a full year of effort was put into making sure the property was cleanly and legally owned by the Dakota Association and that they had the right to lease the land. The land was platted/surveyed, title checks were run, title insurance was secured, and multiple law firms supported the effort. We then developed a lease that protected both parties. All the legal ducks are neatly in a row making sure the land holding is stable for the next 99 years.

Will there be any Lakota ceremonies performed to bless the land?

We would love your input and help to make sure that before we break ground on the first building that we have honored the traditions and practices for a situation like this.

On June 3, 2018, the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ held a church service and blessing at the Virgin Creek (La Plant) Congregational Church.

On June 3, 2018, the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ held a church service and blessing at the Virgin Creek (La Plant) Congregational Church.

Deepening partnerships:  Bryan Nurnberger (left), Simply Smiles President and Founder and Toni Buffalo (right), Administrator of the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ sign the 99-year lease agreement, allowing Simply Smiles to continue and expand its programming on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota.

Deepening partnerships: Bryan Nurnberger (left), Simply Smiles President and Founder and Toni Buffalo (right), Administrator of the Dakota Association of the United Church of Christ sign the 99-year lease agreement, allowing Simply Smiles to continue and expand its programming on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota.


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

voices of lakota youth: "rides on the enemy without fear"

Zach Gross

In honor of the Native Nations March in Washington, D.C. today, we wanted to share with you the perspective of Kayson, a Lakota teenager living on the Cheyenne River Reservation whom we have been fortunate to know since we began our partnership on the Reservation. 

Kayson spent the entire fall and winter of 2016 on the Standing Rock Reservation, serving as a water protector and resisting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In those months, he experienced the joy of different indigenous nations from across the globe coming together juxtaposed with the brutality of people driven by greed and destruction.

During a recent trip to the Reservation in late February, we asked Kayson to share his thoughts on what living at camp was like, how it changed him, and what's next for him as a Lakota youth.

In a ceremony later this year, Kayson will be honored and given a Lakota name, which, fittingly, translates to "Rides on the Enemy Without Fear."

the feeling of camp -

it was a feeling of welcoming, and the people were so nice to each other.

i was there when the camp was still young.

i was a boy then, and now i'm a man.

i learned the ways of my religion and that's Lakota.

i rode horses there. i rode with the riders i call brothers now.

we are all in this fight together. we have to fight for what's right. 

i've met so many different tribes. it was the best feeling i had in a long time -

like the air was filled with joy

and the people would enjoy the ways of many different tribes.

there were round dances and singing contests and volleyball and basketball.

i was happy for my people because the joy they had was brought too on that day of oct. 27th**:

it was a hard day that i was riding with my brothers to fight the black snake.

i watched the cops hurting my people.

I am a protector of Mother Earth. It’s my calling to do so.

they showed no fear against my people, and i was a little scared.

they used concussion grenades against us, had weapons.

we had no weapons, we were unarmed.

that did not matter to them.

i was there.

i watched the people getting hurt by the police.

then my brother told us to go with him, so we did the buffalo run and we herded those buffalo.

we heard the screams of joy from our people, we gave them hope and they did not give up.

they fought hard that day.

i'm proud to be Lakota.

i'm proud of my people that fought with us that day. 

my next fight is with the kxl pipeline.

that'll be in bridger, SD.

i've been trained for this, so now I'm ready for that fight

and i wanna bring as many people to fight with us.

we stood with standing rock. now it's time to stand with cheyenne river.

that's what we gotta do.

i am a protector of mother earth. it's my calling to do so.

i'll have my brothers next to me fighting this pipeline.

i thank you guys for the support and hopefully we will see you there.

We are all in this fight together. We have to fight for what’s right.

**You can read more about the events of October 27, 2016 and the subsequent detainment of water protectors here and here.

STAY INFORMED. Learn more about the Native Nations Rise March and its aims here and here.  •  You can follow the march and subsequent actions by following the hashtags #NativeNationsRise, #NativeNationsMarch, #IndigenousRising, #NoDAPL and #WaterIsLife on social media. •  Read the latest news about the Dakota Access Pipeline here

TAKE ACTION. Learn how your members of Congress have voted on issues that affect Native Americans -- and encourage them to support indigenous rights with upcoming legislation -- here.

VOLUNTEER WITH SIMPLY SMILES. You can meet the amazing Lakota youth that we support on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. Click on the button below to learn more and get started!


Header photo: © 2016, Rob Wilson Photography

Growing moments: 2016 garden season on the Reservation

Alex Gross

by Alexandra Gross, Reservation garden manager

the harvest!

Over the course of this summer, I chipped away at Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer is a scientist, enthobotanist, professor and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She’s a gifted writer and philosopher who gives profound insight into the interconnectedness of all living creatures. One passage from her work continues to resonate with me: “A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence. And its power goes beyond the garden gate - once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself.”

If you have a job that is dependent on Mother Nature, you learn to be humble. Good farmers and food growers acknowledge that they are merely facilitators and caretakers for bigger, natural forces. Sure, we can plant the seeds and hope to reap a harvest and a small profit, but much of it is out of our control. 

What is in our control: How we choose to show respect, reverence and patience for the human and biotic community that surround and are a part of the garden.

The easiest part of my job, especially coming from a commercial growing background, is showing the quantitative value of the garden. I’m proud to say that, during the 2016 season, we produced more than 700 pounds of food. That’s a lot of vegetables! This growth in production should be celebrated, especially watching the La Plant Grow Its Own Food project transform from a small, tomato-growing contest to a quarter-acre micro farm because of the many, generous hands of the Simply Smiles community.

But, how do I capture the most rewarding part, or the intangible benefits? I’ve seen a shift in some of the adults, whom I first met when I was a volunteer in 2013 when they were shy and slightly standoffish to now, when they approach the garden with great interest and pride. I’ve had the opportunity to mentor and work alongside many inquisitive, spirited kids who get truly psyched about working in the garden, selling the produce at their weekly farmstands, or leading garden tours, gaining authority and confidence with each passing week. 

When I arrived in La Plant to expand the garden project in April 2014, the original plan was simple: Build a garden in a central location, and people will come. Well, turns out, it was and remains not that simple.

This is not to say that “going with the flow” became the adopted mantra - far from it! By just being in the garden space regularly, people - adults and youth alike - have shown interest in and embrace the garden in their own unique and meaningful ways. Pace and patience are two concepts that I’ve come to appreciate because people are showing up, they are eating the food, and they are participating.

La Plant Grows Its Own Food    farmstand series 2016!

Seeds are taking root in La Plant:


People in town attended the nine farmstands that we held throughout the course of summer and early fall. Individuals asked how to use vegetables, and neighbors shared recipes.

  • A young girl saved up some money to buy a cookbook at the farmstand. She wanted to test out some new recipes for her family.
  • In late summer, after a townwide meal, I watched a young father walk around the garden with his toddler son on his shoulders, pointing out different vegetables and flowers.
  • A man quietly stopped by the Community Center to learn more about a seed packet that he was given. He planned to plant the watermelon in his garden, but wanted to know if the fruit would grow in time for a family reunion in late summer.
  • A grandmother harvested young carrots with her granddaughter, both with wide smiles on their faces.
  • A young couple invited Zach and me to see their new garden in their backyard. We casually swapped tips and laughs, as you would with close friends.
  • During garden class, a girl said, rather casually, that the garden makes her feel safe…and less bored. 
  • One of the youth garden assistants from the Reservation planted a garden around the perimeter of his house, providing weekly updates on the the height of his growing sunflower and asking when the seeds would be ready to harvest, eat, and save for the following season.

The garden is flourishing because presence - physically being there - is the root of the Simply Smiles philosophy. You can’t run a garden from a desk in Connecticut, and I’ve been fortunate that I have spent a significant part of my three years with the organization living and working on the Reservation.

Every time I latch the garden gate, I leave the space feeling immensely hopeful. The garden has morphed into something more than the physical space of raised beds, a greenhouse, and a pumpkin patch. I’ve witnessed, quite visibly that kids and adults alike are seeing and planning for a future.

It's with the support and generosity of members of the Simply Smiles community that we have a garden and greenhouse, that these food growing initiatives can provide an electricity, warmth, and make growing local food on the Reservation a point of pride, celebration, and serve as a visible and exciting symbol of hope and change. Thank you!


The greenhouse!

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 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 the Reservation: Matching history lessons to a place, needing to do more

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by Dennis Cullinane, a teacher at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and leader of the student group that is volunteering with us this week on the Reservation. 

When I embarked upon my journey west to La Plant, South Dakota with Simply Smiles, I was under the impression that I understood what current Native culture was like, and the tragic history that came to shape it. To be sure, some of my understandings were accurate, and in fact, as I traveled here and during my first days in La Plant, I read The Last Stand, a book about Native and U.S. government relations leading up to the Battle of the Little Big Horn. I had also taught and interacted with Native students back at Deerfield Academy, had studied the public health issues of Native Americans, and growing up as a Democrat in Massachusetts, I was sure I was well armed to understand the people I would be helping.

As the days in La Plant have unfolded though, I’ve begun to understand better how incredibly complicated, and dare say, sinister, are the history and current issues facing the inhabitants of the Cheyenne River Reservation. And perhaps most importantly, I now have a tremendously ingrained sense of how scheming, poverty, neglect, and ignorance can trap a people, year after year, generation after generation, in a cycle of despair and surrender.

Dennis, right, works with Jeremy from La Plant to build the foundation of a wood pellet shed at the new homes.

Dennis, right, works with Jeremy from La Plant to build the foundation of a wood pellet shed at the new homes.

Where I came from, unemployment is lower than virtually any country in the Western world, public and health facilities are equally world-class, and a greater educational experience than the generation before is not just a hope, but a certainty. Little kids grow up wanting to be doctors, lawyers, astronauts, marine biologists, or president of the United States. Even African Americans, a cohort that has suffered tremendously at the hands of American society, now can tell their children that they, too, can be president. Unfortunately, the reality I left either nominally exists, or does not exist at all on the Reservation. 

To the great credit of the people who have lived here for generations, and despite all that they as a living historical lineage have endured, they are warm, friendly, thoughtful, profoundly philosophical, and deeply proud of their heritage.

Indeed, I have been incredibly impressed with the indefatigability of their spirits in their daily lives, but I cannot help but feel a need to do more.

Working side-by-side: Volunteer Katie works with Shane of La Plant to frame in a bathroom ceiling on a new home.

Working side-by-side: Volunteer Katie works with Shane of La Plant to frame in a bathroom ceiling on a new home.

Not more in the simple sense of giving money, or goods, or et cetera, but to help kick start the next generation so that they can exit the vicious cycle in which they unknowingly find themselves. Indeed, lending them the lens to see another, possible, happier and more constructive future can be as simple as letting them know somebody else cares about them, wants them to succeed, and in some instances, expects more of them. This knowledge is exactly what will send them - especially the children - careening out of cycle in a wonderfully chaotic tour of life that most of us, their neighbors, take for granted every day of our lives.

A fire was smoldering in me when I committed to the week here at Simply Smiles, smack dab in the middle of South Dakota. That smoldering ember is now burning brightly. I now see the face of my own happy, eager, well-educated, well-traveled and wonderful 14-year-old son in the eyes of every kid I see here, and I shudder at the thought of him giving up on his future and being sucked into a cycle of generational despair.

The kids here need a lens, or a higher hill to stand upon, or whatever metaphor you like, so that they can see further and do more with their lives. I now understand life here, but sadly, only a little bit better.

Field Notes from the Reservation: Returning volunteers reflect on second visit

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by our friends from Palmer Trinity School of Miami, Florida. This group of high school students are joined for teachers and faculty from the school, as well as individuals from the Massachusetts-based group, Sisters for Peace. Below, students from the Palmer Trinity School make some mid-week reflections about their time here on the Reservation:

All smiles at the new home sites, as we near completion of the exterior facades!

All smiles at the new home sites, as we near completion of the exterior facades!

This is Palmer Trinity’s second time in La Plant, and we are extremely excited to be back!

We have been working on Ford and Kee’s houses and have made significant progress throughout the week. All of us have been working hard and putting in our best efforts to complete these homes for the people of the Lakota community. 

In addition to all the wonderful work we have done, the relationships we have built with the other volunteers, interns, staff, and especially the community have given us more than we could ever imagine. The sense of family, pride, and love that Simply Smiles has created within the walls of the Sam D. Horse Community Center has not only brought this community together but has also produced a unique bond among us as students.  

Superhero Day at camp, complete with mighty t-shirts and capes!

Superhero Day at camp, complete with mighty t-shirts and capes!

Among the PTS group, there are four students who are returning for their second volunteer experience. They had such vivid and wonderful memories of their conversations with Barbara, playing basketball with Kayson, and reading with Madison on the playground spiderweb. Upon return Sofia, Delaney, Miguel, and Lauren were apprehensive about how they would be received by the children and elders of La Plant. On the first day of camp, Jayce, Lulu, and Stayce all remembered the four returnees by name. In that moment, Lauren, Sofia and Delaney were brought to tears as they realized that the impact the kids had on them was just as big as the influence the four volunteers had on the kids. 

When we arrived on the Reservation we heard stories of how the Lakota children originally had no aspirations in life. This week, Hope - and many other students from our group - spoke with the children and were happy to hear them make references to graduating high school, attending college, and even aspiring for careers after they finish their schooling.

Sergio, center, leads a garden tour and taste test of the garden!

Sergio, center, leads a garden tour and taste test of the garden!

During camp, kids have expressed desires to become anything from professional basketball players to superheroes. Sergio, for example, has demonstrated an interest in pursuing a career in agriculture. These very ambitions are testaments to the positive impact Simply Smiles has had and continues to make on this community. 

Throughout our trip we have befriended the children, heard the horrific stories of what the elders went through during the“Boarding School Era, and felt accomplished after finishing the framing, soffits, and mixing of cement to build houses for the deserving families.

Every experience is meant to change you, and this experience is most definitely changing us. 

Field Notes from the Reservation: Consistency in the face of poverty and pain

Alex Gross

The most recent Field Note is the second reflection by our friends from Plymouth Congregational Church of Lawrence, Kansas. As a returning volunteer group, they discuss the importance of consistency and presence in combatting larger issues on the Reservation in their latest post. Take a read:

No single week’s worth of work can provide a lasting antidote to the forces of poverty, racism and broken relationships that have plagued the Cheyenne River Reservation for centuries. But, there is hope; there is measurable and visible change taking place, and Simply Smiles is here to stay. 

Now, Plymouth Youth Group of Lawrence, Kansas is a part of this consistent presence in the Cheyenne River community of La Plant. 

Plymouth Leader Eleanor (second from left) speaks with the housing recipients - Kee, Ford, and Elvis - at the housing site of Ford (second from right).

Plymouth Leader Eleanor (second from left) speaks with the housing recipients - Kee, Ford, and Elvis - at the housing site of Ford (second from right).

“One group, working one week, can’t have all the impact it takes to effect lasting change,” says Cameron Buzhardt, a youth participant on this year’s trip. “But multiple groups coming year after year to take part in this can effect change that extends beyond just the Community Center [in town].”

Cameron, along with her fellow Plymouth Youth volunteers Cole Phillips, Abby Jackson and Andrew Anderson, came to South Dakota for similar reasons. 

For Cole: “I wanted to experience what it was like to be here, to be a part of building a house for a family who needs it.”

For Andrew: “I knew work needed to be done here, and I wanted to help out.”

For Abby, who made the trip north from Kansas to the Reservation in the summer of 2015 as well; “I wanted to see the progress that had been made in a year, to see what kind of impact we possibly made from being here last year. 

“After last year I felt I had a duty to continue to help out,” says Abby. “I felt like it was truly a calling.”

The reality of experiencing the systemic dysfunction that has existed since the creation of the Reservation system can be challenging, especially when one sees the effects on individuals with the least control over their present circumstances — the children whom Plymouth Youth have gotten to know through Simply Smiles’ day camp.

Personal piñata making at camp!

Personal piñata making at camp!

After speaking with a teenage girl at camp, Abby recounted, “I asked her whether or not the community was changing, if the positive interactions and relationships have spread to the rest of the town, and she said it was hard to say. There are still a lot of problems, but here [at the Community Center], here is a safe space for the kids.”

Behavioral issues at camp — particularly incidents of bullying between select children — do not emerge from a vacuum. They are often the result of the pain that runs deep from years of systematic and cultural disintegration. 

This in no way excuses or condones bullying — Simply Smiles has a zero tolerance policy for such behavior — but witnessing the legacy of history is an important thing for Plymouth Youth to experience and grapple with firsthand.

In talking with La Plant residents, Abby learned that change, no matter how incremental, was still huge and, “happening. The stability provided in Simply Smiles can create safety, security and positive interactions for the kids to hopefully mimic. And I do believe it can and will spread over time.”

When asked if she’d think about coming back and volunteering with Simply Smiles again, Abby replied, “Absolutely.” A recent high school graduate, she went on to say, “I want to come back as an intern next summer.”

The work with the children is perhaps the most important project of any volunteer group that comes to La Plant and Simply Smiles. The children are the foundation and the future; reminding the kids on the Reservation of their importance—of the value of their hopes and their dreams, of their right to a place in this world—is vital. And the hundreds of Simply Smiles volunteers who travel to the Reservation each summer can provide the consistent presence necessary to enact change.

Taking great heights to build strong, safe, secure homes:  Thanks to our amazing volunteers and interns who worked alongside Bryan to put the roof on Ford's new home!

Taking great heights to build strong, safe, secure homes: Thanks to our amazing volunteers and interns who worked alongside Bryan to put the roof on Ford's new home!

Field Notes from the Reservation: Doin’ Work - Physically, Structurally, and Emotionally

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by our friends from Plymouth Congregational Church of Lawrence, Kansas. They are returning for their second volunteer week here on the Reservation with a passionate, enthusiastic and creative group of adults and high school students. Below, they reflect on their first few days of work projects and camp.

A tight seal of caulk goes on our new home!

A tight seal of caulk goes on our new home!

Plymouth Youth Group’s first full day of scheduled activities in La Plant, South Dakota with Simply Smiles ended with sweat, tired muscles and many more new, meaningful, personal connections to the families and specifically the children of the Cheyenne River Reservation.

“When we were setting up the trusses, at first it was just work,” says Alexis Hickman, “but it dawned on me later that I was literally building a house for a family. Especially, after seeing the trailer they currently lived in, and how badly they needed this house.”

“Pouring over thirty bags of concrete was exhausting, but it was very fulfilling to see the end result,” says Tristan Kramar.

“To put something down solid, in concrete, helped to underscore the permanence of what we were doing,” says Rose Winmore.

Both Tristan and Rose also spoke about the family for which they were constructing the concrete path, specifically the two year old son, D.J., who they got to play with and who tried to help out in the process by adding little handfuls of dirt into the concrete mix.

After the day’s work projects came the more, truly, exhausting, yet much more impactful work in the Simply Smiles Day Camp as a bus load of kids as young as four and as old as thirteen rolled up to the community center. 

“I was blown away by how fast the kids all learned our names, or how they remembered the names of the people who came here last year,” says Jasmine Hawk. “They genuinely seemed excited to see us, to meet us.” 

“The new faces,” says Doug Beene, “seem to provide an escape from their present realities.” 

“For them to remember those who came back,” says Rose, “I guess, in a way, that these people cared about you for more than just one week a year.”

The day camp is a safe space where kids can socialize and play without fear or uncertainty hanging over them. “I got to see two little kindergarteners become instant friends at the bubble station,” Rose says. “They took joy in having the common ground of being the same age, going into kindergarten the next year.” Simply Smiles gave them that place for an introduction. 

Bubble fun at camp!

Bubble fun at camp!

“Honestly,” Tristan says, “I wish I could be a part of the camp all day, instead of working on the projects. Yes, you see progress on the houses, but you see even more progress in making connections with these kids, having great conversations. It produces an even more important form of progress.”

The construction projects are not short on producing powerfully emotional impacts as well though. 

“To be here, to see a house close to being finished, or to see it finished,” Alexis says, “is amazing. To know you were a part of that is amazing.”

The houses that Simply Smiles volunteers help to create provide an invaluable sense of independence for the families who move into them. Being allowed to be a part of this work doesn’t simply create a self congratulating reward of being some sort of liberating savior. Rather, it’s about extending a hand with gratitude for the experience and seeing that paid back through the interactions with the youngest of the reservation and through them the future and recognition of growing pride within the La Plant community that reminds us all of the brotherhood and sisterhood of a shared humanity.

What Simply Smiles Means to Me: A reflection from Erin Scionti, volunteer & intern extraordinaire

Alex Gross

Erin Scionti first volunteered on the Reservation in 2013 and returned as an intern in 2015. She joined Simply Smiles staff members Zach and Sam and a team of medical staff during our fall medical clinic and food distribution program in Mexico in November. Below, Erin reflects on her experiences. 

I was beyond ecstatic when I was offered the opportunity to travel with Simply Smiles to Oaxaca, Mexico to help with the food and medicine distribution in the village of Santa Maria Tepexipana (SMT), and to assist Dr. Gil L’italien in testing stool samples to determine the prevalence of various intestinal parasites in that region. I am currently studying public health at Southern Connecticut State University, so this trip encapsulated everything that I had learned so far in the classroom. It made the classroom lessons tangible. I could feel and see the impact of the countless hours spent studying textbook material.

Erin, right, works alongside Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'italien to test stool samples for the presence of parasitic intestinal worms in Santa Maria Tepexipana and its neighboring communities.

Erin, right, works alongside Simply Smiles board member and epidemiologist Dr. Gil L'italien to test stool samples for the presence of parasitic intestinal worms in Santa Maria Tepexipana and its neighboring communities.

We arrived in Oaxaca as a spirited group of eight hard working and dedicated individuals, ready to take on the crucial tasks ahead. Coming into the week, I already had a strong understanding of what was expected of us as representatives of Simply Smiles. I served as an intern with Simply Smiles this past summer on the Cheyenne River Reservation in La Plant, South Dakota. There, I saw the attentiveness, flexibility and love put into each project and person by the staff of Simply Smiles. Though the tasks were drastically different in Oaxaca than those I worked on in La Plant, our mission remained the same: to inspire hope. 

On our first day in Oaxaca, we visited Casa Hogar Benito Juarez, the children’s home that first inspired Simply Smiles. I was a bit nervous at first that I wouldn’t be able to connect well with the kids because of our language differences. But, I learned quickly that language was the smallest of barriers standing in the way of children and fun. The kids warmed up to us immediately as we colored, ran around and enjoyed multiple servings of their favorite ice cream. Seeing the way the kids at Casa Hogar interacted with us reassured me that a language barrier wouldn't stop me from connecting and building relationships with the other children I would meet throughout the week. 

The next day, we departed on an eight hour drive through the breathtakingly beautiful roads of Oaxaca up to Santa Maria Tepexipana, a small village in the remote mountains. When we arrived, I was expecting to see a town in despair but instead I saw quite the opposite. Though poor and many stricken with illness, the people of SMT were some of the warmest people I have ever met. I was so fortunate to meet these kind-hearted individuals, which reaffirmed that happiness is not a measurement of material worth, but rather, a reflection of how one values life.

People in SMT are simply happy to give love and be loved. Families took pride in their home and their culture, they looked out for one another and willingly took less to give others more. Their generosity never ceased to amaze me. One family cleared out an entire half of their home so that we would have a place to sleep and eat during the week. Like the children at Casa Hogar, the kids in SMT instantly became our best friends, hugging us, and holding our hands upon moments of our arrival. I was pleased to see that, once again, despite our language differences, we were welcomed with open arms and smiling faces. 

During the three days of the food distribution and the medical clinic, I worked closely with Dr. Gil Litalien in examining stool samples to track the prevalence of intestinal parasites in the SMT region. We looked specifically for Ascaris, Trichuris, and hookworm. We gathered samples from 113 children who came through the food distribution program with their families.

After careful examination, we found a 21.2% prevalence in the entirety of the region, compared to a 31.4% prevalence in 2014. This 10% decline is a remarkable confirmation that the work Simply Smiles is doing to treat and prevent the spread of infection is noticeably working. By distributing Abendezol at each food distribution and educating the community on the importance of hand washing and wearing shoes out side, the prevalence of intestinal parasites in the SMT region has drastically decreased. 

Erin, during her time as an intern on the Reservation in 2015. Her positive attitude, willingness to lend a hand wherever needed, and sense of humor are among her many qualities that make her a favorite in the La Plant community!

Erin, during her time as an intern on the Reservation in 2015. Her positive attitude, willingness to lend a hand wherever needed, and sense of humor are among her many qualities that make her a favorite in the La Plant community!

As the week continued to run with ease, thanks to the hard work of our energized and committed team, I grew more and more attached to all the smiling faces of the children and their families in SMT. The people I met in this one small village in Oaxaca, Mexico were so thankful for the help we brought them, but I feel what they gave me in return was an even greater gift. They gave me their friendship. Though our work here is not complete, I returned home knowing that the people we helped this week would continue to grow healthy and remain happy. 

Interning for Simply Smiles has taught me a great deal about myself and the world around me. I’ve learned how to be a valuable part of a team, how to be a strong leader, how to love and care for everyone I meet and most importantly how a simple smile can go a long way.

Tell us what Simply Smiles means to you! Respond with a comment below, post to our Facebook page, Instagram a photo, or tweet @simplysmilesinc using the hashtag #SimplySmilesmeans.

Field Notes from the Reservation: The complexities of being present

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is from Emma Russell, who is in the special category of super volunteer. In addition to her service in Mexico, Emma has shared her time and talents with Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Reservation beginning in 2008. Emma has parlayed her passion and on-going commitment to education to organize two college tours for middle and high school-aged students. The most recent trip in October 2015 was to the University of South Dakota, where nine female students from the town of La Plant, ranging from 7th to 12th grade, joined Emma and Simply Smiles staff member Alex on a two-day tour of the University. Below, Emma addresses the complexities of telling stories that honors relationships that she's made on the Reservation.

Emma, having fun with the kids at camp on the Reservation. (August 2014)

Emma, having fun with the kids at camp on the Reservation. (August 2014)

Although I have had the profound privilege of being a part of Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Reservation since some of the very first days, I have yet to write anything about my experiences until now. A big part of me feels guilty and irresponsible for neglecting to put my many thoughts into written words, yet I have been hesitant for a reason.

To begin, I tend to be a perfectionist when writing and the weight of telling this story always seemed to leave me paralyzed, unable to write for fear of saying the wrong thing, or sharing something that is so grand and deep I could not possibly do it justice. From my very first months on the Reservation, I was acutely aware of my ignorance of this new place. I was truly an outsider, and this made telling the story uncomfortable. This, paired with my shock at the manner in which our nation’s gross past against Native Americans persists on reservations today (and my oblivion to it), made writing something adequate and all-encompassing feel impossible. Now, less ignorant, but still a world apart from the lives lived by those on the Reservation, another thing weighs on me: friendship.     

I will never fully understand what it is like to be Native and live with these heinous injustices that resonate loudly in present day. However, the countless times that I have seen children whom I have watched grow up for the past 7 years (and who are still children) question the worth of their own lives, I am equally as loudly reminded of this direct and tragic correlation between past and present. 

In today’s world, death and depression, particularly among native youth, are devastatingly substantial parts of the current narrative of reservations across America. Furthermore, these narratives are but a whisper among the majority of the country—if even that.

I have wrestled a serious conflict within me since setting foot on the CRST for the first time six summers ago. A conflict that involves telling a story that is certainly not mine to tell, but if I do not tell it, I become a part of the problem that has persisted for generations.

Which leads me to where I am today: staring at my computer screen with a profound love for all of my friends in La Plant, attempting to strike a balance with my words that maintains the level of respect they deserve, while still bearing the weight of a persisting injustice that I (both directly and indirectly) own.

Every year, I go back to live in La Plant and my heart breaks on multiple occasions. I am also, however, overcome with joy and hope for the future of the kids and teens in La Plant. While my recent trip in October was not without its heartbreaks, I want to share with you the positive anticipation that resounded while taking a group of nine incredible young women on the second ever Simply Smiles College Tour. 

Nine students from the town of La Plant on the Reservation visit the Native American Cultural Center at the University of South Dakota. The Center is integral to Native student retention rates. (October 2015)

Nine students from the town of La Plant on the Reservation visit the Native American Cultural Center at the University of South Dakota. The Center is integral to Native student retention rates. (October 2015)

I have always believed that, more than almost anything else, education is a catalyst for social change. The young population of La Plant deserves to not only wonder, but also KNOW that college is a part of their futures if they so choose. On this trip, I was impressed over and over again by the girls’ questions, enthusiasm, and dreams. The girls asked about pre-medical programs, nursing, art, and veterinarian programs. They explored new concepts at the college fair such as anthropology and sociology. I reveled in the look of astonishment and admiration when they told faculty members from different programs that they were only in seventh/ninth/tenth grade. They displayed a maturity I have not seen in many people my age. I was ecstatic when the one senior on the trip made sure they attended the scholarship seminar upstairs and then filled out an application on the spot. The girls displayed the confidence and self-awareness to sit down at the big piano in the crowded student center and play songs they learned at music camp for all passing students (very well, I might add). They inspired everyone—from the faculty of the school, to the young women of the Coyotes Division I basketball team, to myself, to each other—with just how incredible they can be and what that means for their futures. 

The students from the Reservation take a tour of the University of South Dakota campus. (October 2015)

The students from the Reservation take a tour of the University of South Dakota campus. (October 2015)

These young women demonstrated a self-confidence, excitement, and air of inquiry that I had not before felt or seen on my trips visiting schools as a prospective student…and some of them are only 12 years old. The goal for these Simply Smiles college trips is not just to ignite in the students the thrill and positive anticipation for their futures, although it is critical.

The youth in La Plant exist in a world where many have lost their peers, many under the age of 15, because young adults are constantly left to wonder if their lives are worth something—worth living. To combat this reality, this trip also promotes experiences that allow these young teens to realize just how extraordinary they are - something that we and the other adults in their lives are reminded of on a daily basis, but that can sometimes be lost on them.

I would say that it remains unfathomable to me that the current situation for Native Americans pervades as tragically as it does today, yet it is evident each time I set foot on the Rez. There is no question about the effect the past has had on the present situation. Native children ARE suffering as a direct result of society’s attempt to stifle their culture, their beliefs, their language, and rob them of their land and resources. We as a collective society need to continue to own those mistakes made and those that continue to be made and fight them.

While it all still saddens me and there is still a very long way to go, I feel exceptionally lucky to be a part of something that is not only trying, but succeeding, in doing this one college trip, one smile, and one friendship at a time.

College tours not only enhance the prospect of a post-high school future, but that the lives of Native youth matter. (October 2015)

College tours not only enhance the prospect of a post-high school future, but that the lives of Native youth matter. (October 2015)

Field Notes from the Reservation: The La Plant Music Camp rocks the Unity Concert in the Black Hills!

Alex Gross

On the hazy, humid morning of Sunday, August 30, 2015, a group of 14 bleary eyed children and a handful of parents and grandparents from La Plant on the Cheyenne River Reservation boarded the big red bus and headed to the Black Hills. The sound system on the bus looped "Puff the Magic Dragon," "This Little Light of Mine," "If I Had A Hammer," and Kristen Graves' "Keep Hope Alive" throughout the journey. The kids had all been practicing these songs during Music Camp with Kristen, and this trip to the Black Hills was the culmination of their practice. They would perform on stage at The Unity Concert, a weekend-long concert that celebrated the sacred place through music, culture, peace, and justice. Spoiler: The kids closed out the festival! Take a look:

The word "proud" doesn't even begin to sum up how we felt about the experience. The kids performed with a confidence that even seasoned performers envy. Their voices were clear, their energy was high. In short: They nailed it! Unity Concert organizer and musician Bethany Yarrow noted that the La Plant Music Camp kids were the highlight of the three-day performances. The crowd even requested an encore!

It was a long, exciting, magical day for all of us. As we drove the bus back to La Plant, the kids giggled, started impromptu, silly verses of "This Little Light of Mine," and many eventually succumbed to their exhaustion, with big, contented smiles on their faces. 

It was truly the perfect, celebratory punctuation to the end of our time on the Reservation for the 2015 summer season. In many ways, this performance is just the beginning of future musical endeavors for the La Plant Music Camp.

A big, big "thank you" to Kristen Graves for spearheading and inspiring Music Camp, and to Peter Yarrow, Bethany Yarrow, and the organizers of the Unity Concert for making this opportunity possible for the La Plant kids! And, a HUGE "thank you" to members of the Simply Smiles family for supporting and nurturing fun, unique, and monumental excursions like this for the children and their families on the Reservation.

And, of course, thanks to the La Plant Music Camp kids for rockin' on!

Field Notes from the Reservation: It's what we do with our experience that matters

Alex Gross

Today's Field Note is brought to you by Fairfield University students and first-time volunteers Elena Berube and Becca Quillard. This is the second year a student volunteer group from Fairfield has joined us on the Reservation, which is all the more special as it is Zach and Alex's alma mater!

It’s 2:30PM and the big red bus is on its way to big things. You can hear the ice cream truck music playing, the daily signal that camp has started. You can see the kids running to the bus, eager to get to the community center. The bright colors all around the community center symbolize the happy atmosphere that this place creates for the kids. As a volunteer, this moment is a reminder of why we are here.

Over the past four days, we have been working on various construction projects for some of the community members. When we started these work projects on our second day, we hadn’t met any of the community members. Once we finally met them, it meant so much more because there were intentions and emotions behind our work. Spending the afternoon working with the kids at camp really helps us to reestablish the purpose of being here, seeing how the work we are doing has the power to improve the lives of the kids and their families.   

Smiles abound among our interns and volunteers at the new house project, including Nakia Letang, associate director of admissions at Fairfield University, and Dom Mastroni, from Milford, CT! (Z. Gross, August 2015, La Plant")

Smiles abound among our interns and volunteers at the new house project, including Nakia Letang, associate director of admissions at Fairfield University, and Dom Mastroni, from Milford, CT! (Z. Gross, August 2015, La Plant")

As college students we may think that we have been exposed to more knowledge, but we have found that the wisdom of our new friends in La Plant far exceeds our understanding of life. In four short days, we have learned more from them than we can in a typical classroom setting.

A La Plant resident talked about how valuable a college degree is, but reminded us that “an education means nothing if it is artificial, missing parts. It’s like math without the zeros.” For us this showed how important education is, but even with the degree, it’s what we do with it that matters. 

There's always time to swing! (Z. Gross, August 2015, La Plant)

There's always time to swing! (Z. Gross, August 2015, La Plant)

We’ve found that the children are opening up to us now that we have spent more time listening and playing with them. We hope that they understand the importance of education and recognize their power to change the world. Of course we are are encouraging them to become fellow Stags! 

It’s now 5:30 PM and the big red bus is pulling out of the Simply Smiles parking lot, dogs chasing alongside. The kids are begging us to swing longer, paint another face, or join them for a ride. They leave happier than when they first arrived, eager for another day at summer camp. 

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: Field trips & raising walls - all in a day's work

Alex Gross

For the second time this week, volunteers Kathy West and Stu Constantine from First Congregational Church of Stamford bring you their insights from their latest experiences here in La Plant on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Wednesday marked the midpoint of our week in La Plant. We’ve been lucky with the weather — clear and dry days, not too hot. In fact. the morning today was quite cool with a breeze. We started the day by hosting a community breakfast of waffles with real Vermont maple syrup brought in by the team from Guilford, Vermont. Quite a few people from town joined us, along with some of the kids and we had a full house out on the patio. 

After breakfast the teams continued on the various work projects, making good progress all around. We came back for lunch, and then we all got into the bus for a trip to the river for an afternoon of swimming with the kids. All the kids were teamed up with volunteer buddies to help keep an eye on them in the water. It was a nice way to spend a hot afternoon, and the kids loved to swim and eat snacks. 

River fun! (Z. Gross, August 2015)

River fun! (Z. Gross, August 2015)

After getting back from the river we had just a few minutes to change, then it was back on the bus for a trip to Eagle Butte for dinner and dessert at the local Dairy Queen, a special treat. Everyone is getting along really well, and the kids have been having a great time with so many young people to play with (they seem to have more fun with the high school kids than the grown-ups!). As the week goes on. we’re all settling into the rhythm of this place - taking time getting to know each other and the people in the community and really living in a communal fashion. It’s quite a difference from life back on the East Coast. 

* * * * *

On Thursday morning, we experienced our first South Dakota thunderstorm. It happened right after we finished our morning mile walk. And as promised, the rain turned the dirt into something they refer to as “gumbo”— thick, muddy clay! It took us all day to clean up after tracking it in over and over again (yeah, thanks, I was on floor duty).  

It was a special day for the kids as it was movie day! All the kids and half of the volunteers traveled to Pierre (by the way, pronounced ‘pier’) to see the Minions movie. For some kids, it was the first time that they had seen a movie! Can you imagine having to travel 1 1/2 hours to see a movie?!  

While many were enjoying the air conditioning and popcorn, the rest of us made an amazing amount of progress with the houses that are being built. We finished taping and mudding (compounding) all the rooms, finishing all the interior walls, and fixed the aforementioned soffit. Also, the Vermont crew finished the shed for the completed house. More cement was poured for the continuing pathways and we also finished our huge buffalo cut-outs that were specially designed by the artists in the group! Then we had to dig MORE three foot holes to mount the finished buffalos.

Thursday evening was Artisan Night and the local tribe members came with their beautiful jewelry , etc to sell. They sold out quickly and even had mail orders to start working on.  

Lastly, did we mention that the food has been incredible? The menus consist of a lot of really healthy stuff and we are pretty spoiled now. The work is hard and the kids are a handful, but of course, it is always worthwhile.

During our weekly cooking class, homemade pizza was on the menu, loaded with vegetables, including basil grown in our hydroponics system, and homemade dough! Both delicious and budget friendly! (A.Gross, August 2015, La Plant)

During our weekly cooking class, homemade pizza was on the menu, loaded with vegetables, including basil grown in our hydroponics system, and homemade dough! Both delicious and budget friendly! (A.Gross, August 2015, La Plant)

Field Notes from the Reservation: No rest for the weary!

Alex Gross

Today’s blog posts are brought to you by volunteers Kathy West and Stu Constantine from First Congregational Church of Stamford. 

We arrived on Saturday evening and acclimated ourselves, going to sleep with full stomachs and a big orange moon in the night sky. We’re all sleeping together on the floor of the community building, and thankfully no one snored too loudly. 

Sunday was a beautiful day, not too hot with a nice breeze and bright blue skies. After a pancake breakfast we got a full tour of the community center. We learned about the history of the community center building, and how it was fully renovated a few years back. The land for the community center was donated by Sam D. Horse several years ago, with hopes that it would help to create a gather point for youth and their families in the area. We learned about the garden, and the plans for expanding the high tunnel structure into a full greenhouse. We also got a tour of the new horseshoe pits, which are built to official specs. 

Later, we toured the town of La Plant, learning about the history of the community and some of the challenges faced by the people living here. We saw the house currently under construction, and also saw one house that will be completed by the end of the summer. 

After lunch we broke into teams and went off to various project sites to make some progress, and to get ourselves set up for a full day on Monday. For those who thought we wouldn’t have enough to do, we’ll be putting up a ceiling and interior walls in the new house, building two storage sheds, a climbing wall, a new walkway, and preparing the ground for a new playground, among other things! 

Sunday night we had a community dinner, with several local families joining us for grilled chicken and salad. After dinner the kids played a huge game of kickball as the sun set while the older folks played horseshoes and traded stories. We’ll sleep well tonight, and tomorrow will be a big day. 

* * * * *

Today was a full-fledged work and camp day. It was some of the hardest work we've ever done. We broke up into teams and made some progress on various projects:

  • Digging posts for a new playground set

  • Garden work and refurbishing the greenhouse covering (no small task, the greenhouse frame is 13’ tall and 72’ long)

  • Building soffits and hat tracks (hope you are impressed with my technical language) on one of the new houses being constructed for a family.

  • Putting up a new shed at one of the completed houses

  • Making and pouring cements for a walkway

  • Constructing a rock climbing wall

Also, very importantly, it was the first day (for us) for the Summer Camp with the kids. We were very ambitious with our arts and crafts and games planned. We picked up some kids in the Big Red Bus and others showed up from what seemed to be from out of nowhere. The kids made lanyards and friendships bracelets, colored, played basketball and kickball, and a multitude of other “stuff” too numerous to mention.

Bonding over art projects. (Z.Gross, August 2015, La Plant)

Bonding over art projects. (Z.Gross, August 2015, La Plant)

At the end of our exhausting day, Zach announced that we would be rewarded with a trip to the mighty Missouri River. This brought rounds of hoops and hollers and applause. Wow, what a trip! Nearly 25 miles away through constant and abundant rolling prairie hills with scattered cows and horses but very, very few houses or people. Watching the grown men and women of our churches (and yeah, the youngsters too, but this is normal for them) run down to the water’s edge and plunge in was quite the sight - something we'll always remember - just pure joy and fun.

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.