Providing aid while simply respecting cultures
In a single moment everything can change. One moment, one injury changed the life of Bryan Nurnberger and his moment created a ripple effect of changing lives. Nurnberger was recuperating from a rock climbing injury when he decided to volunteer at Casa Hogar Benito Juarez in Oaxaca, Mexico. He formed a strong connection to Ricardo, an orphan with physical disabilities, and decided to volunteer with the orphanage for two months.
After Nurnberger’s experience, he wanted to do more and help children like Ricardo to try and better their lives.
“I started Simply Smiles as a means of helping those kids, the ones at the orphanage and all the other kids in need in the world,” Nurnberger said.
Founded in 2003, Simply Smiles is a charity organization that works internationally and domestically, focusing on “bringing smiles to the faces of impoverished children” in Mexico and on the La Plant reservation in South Dakota.
Simply Smiles is an organization that prides itself on listening, interacting and building friendships with people while providing them with aid. They don’t drop off supplies and leave the impoverished to fend for themselves. Instead the volunteers are invested in the relationships they create with them.
Their most recent projects include the Village project and the Cheyenne River Sioux project.
The Village project takes place in a jungle village in Santa Maria, Mexico where the people are starving because they are unable to sell the coffee they grow. The organization brings food, builds schools and provides medical assistance in the village. Juan Hernandez, is the Mexican staff coordinator of the dispensa and he schedules the food drop off ever five or six weeks.
Vice President Peter Allen said the organization sells coffee to fund the Village project. Currently, they are working to form a coffee collective so Simply Smiles can sell the coffee grown in Santa Maria to promote the village’s economy.
“All of our projects are ongoing. Rarely are they a one-time thing, there isn’t a magic wand,” Nurnberger said.
They have worked with orphanages and have provided aid to the dump inhabitants in Oaxaca. Almost everyday for a year, the volunteers would visit the dump and build relationships with the people there by helping them pick through the refuse. Within two years they were able to get all of the dump residents into homes. Nurnberger said that Simply Smiles’ projects don’t truly end until they are sustainable.
The Cheyenne River Sioux project takes place in La Plant, a reservation town isolated from basic resources. Simply Smiles is building homes and a community center on the reservation and creating summer camps for children to create a sense of community. Nurnberger said they took a few residents to New York City to record two CDs of Lakota language to help preserve their culture.
The residents of La Plant were resistant to Simply Smiles aid at first. Nurnberger attributes this to an unwillingness to trust people outside of the reservation because the government broke many promises to them over the years. Nurnberger said that it has been more difficult to try to build relationships in La Plant because it’s a challenge to get to the people because they live in a very isolated location.
Ithaca College senior and Simply Smiles Intern, Haley Brown, said Simply Smiles is different from other organizations because it doesn’t act ethnocentrically.
“We focus on listening first,” Allen said. “We don’t come into a situation and tell people what we’re going to do to fix it.”
Brown said during the weeks when the food is not being delivered to the people living in Santa Maria they hold community dinners where the women get together to cook for the whole village. They decide what to cook and they have told Lulah, the Zapotec liaison for Simply Smiles, that they feel it unifies the village.
One of the Simply Smiles group leaders, Jennifer Habetz, described the organization’s dedication to creating a human connection as a different dynamic.
“I think when that’s the focus to make friends, to build relationships that it’s transformational for everyone involved,” Habetz said.
Simply Smiles describes itself as a backpack organization; they travel on-site and work to build upon the needs of the people. They view themselves as the starting push to help people help themselves.
“We are a backpack organization, we are prepared to work out of our packs and have it just be us helping in anyway we can,” Brown said.
The volunteers want to work side by side with the people to help them have better opportunities in life. It’s why their willing to spend six months hiking through the jungle and working with the villagers.
“We do whatever the situation needs, so we’re constantly learning, changing and adding skills to our tool belt. We spend a tremendous amount of time and effort working and living with the people we support, developing relationships with these people we support,” Nurnberger said. “We’re different from other charities because we build up relationships with the people we support.”
TinaMarie Craven is a freshman journalism and politics double major who will always put a smile on your face. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.