August 14, 2018
‘My Experience with Simply Smiles’ ~ guest speaker Caleb May
Hello everybody. My name is Caleb May and I would like to tell you about my experience with an organization called Simply Smiles. They have been helping impoverished kids in both a children’s home in Oaxaca, Mexico and a Native American reservation in South Dakota.
This summer, thanks to the Alice and Richard Henriquez Memorial Fund and The Youth World Awareness Program, I went to La Plant, South Dakota, on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. My whole family has been there, and it is a sort of rite of passage. Stepping out of the Rapid City Airport is like walking onto a new planet. You can see out for miles over the low hills and houses are sparsely placed. However, stepping onto the reservation is like stepping into another galaxy. La Plant is a town of only about 250 people. The local high school which services many of the neighbouring towns only has 200 or so students k-12. Many of the kids who come to the Simply Smiles summer camp experience trauma in their homes and have less than ideal childhoods.
I was lucky enough to be able to go out with my dad and my sister, Olivia. She has been going for the past 4 years. She was able to give me crucial guidance, introduce me early to the personalities of some of the kids, and teach me about life on the reservation. It was truly a blessing to go out with two of my family members.
I didn’t know what to expect on the first night during the community dinner. However, I soon found out. I was met with a rush of pure chaos as cute kids ran around playing basketball and of course the ever-present need of a piggy back ride.
One kid kept on coming back to me by the name of Ziggy. I gave him a piggy back and called him Ziggy Funky Ninja Monkey and it turned out he liked it. A lot. Throughout the week he constantly requested to be called by that name. He would get into my arms and I would shimmy down as I said funky and swing him to a different place as I said monkey. He would find me every day during camp and would jump up into my arms yelling “do the funky monkey.”
At the summer camp the groups can break off easily by age and it is rare to find something that brings them all together. However, 2 of my fellow volunteers decided to make a treasure hunt. It was what people call a wild success. Everyone of every age group was working together running around camp looking for the fabled prize. And of course when they got tired of running they would default to your back.
The camp activity that Olivia, my dad, and I contributed was survival bracelet making. It is a simple weave of 2 strands of parachute cord. Not to brag but the kids absolutely loved it. In about 4 days the kids had made over 100 bracelets. Campers were making them for themselves, their friends and their families. They liked them so much we didn’t have to market them as survival tools. They were kid magnets. We couldn’t have done it without the help of Joe Brien of Lost Art Workshops. We learned to make them several years ago with him in one of his amazing family workshops and he was generous enough to come to our house, give us a tutorial, and supply several of the bracelet making looms, which made it much easier for the younger kids to make the bracelets. It was a big hit and the staff were ecstatic to usethe looms for the rest of the summer and have them for next year.
Another memory that keeps coming back to me is from a kid named Leron. I briefly met him on the first day during one of the crafts and followed me around the grounds as I attempted to find my dad. A couple days later I was assigned as his swim buddy for the river. It was probably the hardest job I had to do all week. I mistakenly introduced him to the squirt gun and he took the entire time terrorizing the other kids by hosing them down constantly. Even the volunteers, interns, and staff weren’t safe.
However not all memories with Leron were good. One day he was sent home and he was visibly upset. He sat on my lap and just laid his head against my chest until we took him home. It was heartbreaking to see a kid go from having so much fun to being sent home and being sad. It shows the profound affect that Simply Smiles’s has had by creating a refuge of safety and fun for the kids. And while it was hard to see Leron go home early, I understand Simply Smiles’s policy and how having structure and consistency at camp makes it safe and fun for all campers.
One of the older kids I played with, Wayne, normally tries to act cool and tough during camp and at times it can be difficult to get him to engage in the organized activities. However, one afternoon he stayed a little while after camp until his grandparents could pick him up and I was able to engage with him one-on-one. We whipped out a snap circuit and began to build different electrical projects of increasing difficulty. We spent 30 minutes creating new circuits and I got to see Wayne tear through the pages of the instructional pamphlet and get lost in the fun of some intricate design that he built with his own hands. It was cool to hang out with Wayne and do something that we both were interested in. I am grateful for that time with Wayne and felt lucky he sought me out to do that activity with him.
During one of the nights everyone woke up to the wind whipping about and constant flashes of lightning. All the volunteers gathered in the common room and talked about what survived the storm and what didn’t. In the morning we surveyed the damage. All the latrines were damaged in some shape or form and the 6 by 6 supporting beams of the horseshoe pit roof snapped in half from the winds. I was amazed by the Simply Smiles staff, volunteers, and community as they fixed a latrine and the horseshoe pit while also working part time in the summer camp. It just goes to show the dedication of the community and volunteers to keep the community center up and running.
I didn’t even care that I got 3 showers over the course of the week even at a time in my life where showers are a crucial part. You didn’t have time to think about it. All you could think of was keeping the energetic kids with something to do besides piggy backs.
The whole entire thing was truly life changing and I thank the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation for making it possible for me to go and Pastor Diane for bringing awareness of Simply Smiles to our congregation. I will take the experience wherever I go and look forward to traveling back again. Thank you.