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International Projects - Simply Smiles Oaxaca Project
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Simply Smiles Oaxaca Project

Robert S. Spencer

March 2009


We arrived in Oaxaca City by air late on Saturday, March 7th. Our group of 19 hearty travelers was tired and ready to get settled. Getting processed through customs uneventfully we were greeted heartily by Bryan Nurnberger, Simply Smiles founder and President, who loads us on the bus and takes us to Casa Hogar. Our adventure has begun!


Sunday comes early as we are greeted by the sound of crowing roosters, barking dogs and snoring bunkmates. We're in 2 dormitories men on one side, women on the other. The top bunk is the choice of the younger or less quick to select. The sun is out, sky clear and coffee strong and plentiful - just like Bryan had promised. Some of the kids are out sweeping up the yard and picking up the garbage left strewn by stray dogs. We are in the midst of a multi-building setting that houses Casa Hogar's 60+ residents, the church that sponsors it and the soccer (futbal) "field" which is a concrete area constructed by a previous mission group. A concrete wall with a large metal gate that is never closed surrounds us.


Church starts at 11:30 and runs ‘til 1:30 and is a mixture of rock music, passionate scripture/prayer, loud song and liturgical dance. We are all quite warm by the end of the service. The balance of Sunday we spend hanging with the kids, getting acquainted with our surroundings and tearing the old roof off of one of the boy's dormitories. The work goes fast as we are eager to get our hands dirty. The kids are right there in our midst climbing up the ladders behind us to get a better view of us and the work we are doing. A couple of hours and we are finished and covered in dirt and sweat. The altitude (5200 feet) and sun have combined to knock us down a humble peg or two but we feel good and sleep better that night.


Monday morning we head to the Oaxaca City dump to meet some of the families that Simply Smiles has already built homes for and to get a sense of the context in which they live. This is a very powerful morning for all of us. The size and smell of the dump is very powerful. The roving packs of dogs are intimidating as are the huge buzzards that are clustered on the nearby hillside waiting for the next truck to dump its load. The people are stunning! They greet Bryan like their favorite son and immediately turn their warmth to us as well. They live on the margins but they have so much. Their homes are haphazard creations of many different materials all salvaged over the years. Their yards are full of the materials they have collected from the dump: huge stacks of cardboard and large canvas bags of plastic bottles, piles of glass, electronic parts and miscellaneous debris that you and I might never look at twice.


The dump is the source of "wealth" for these 35 families spread along the road the runs up the hill to the active part of the dump. We are welcomed into the cider block homes that have been built already and while small, perhaps 300 square feet, a significant step up from the patchwork of scrap materials they were used to. There is a warmth and dignity that pours forth from them as they show us around. Each new home is a different color and stands out nicely in the dust brown that covers this neighborhood. We are all stunned by the power of what we are seeing, some of us speechless, some in tears, all deeply touched by what we are experiencing on many levels simultaneously.


We board our bus and head off to the building site we will be working on for the week building a home for Socoro and his 3 generational family. Once there we break into our three teams (red, blue and green) and learn the tasks that we will be rotating through. Chipping block, carrying block, laying block, sifting sand, hand mixing mortar and hydrating frequently will be our sole focus on the site for the next four days.  We are fortunate to have the guidance of Marcello and Alejandro, two brothers and masons hired to give us guidance and assistance. 


We return "home" exhausted physically and emotionally, this was a heavy day in many ways. Fortunately, there are many smiling faces and little ones waving hola! when we pull in. Showers and clean clothes do the trick and we're back out with those amazing kids. They really are amazing. Each one is an expression of exuberance in spite of what we might think of as limitations. My friend Gene comments "they obviously didn't get the memo that told them they were different/limited/poor". Thank God for small favors. I am struck by the realization that the line between us is quite thin - they could be me and I them, they could be my kids. For this week they are my kids! Our evening debrief is an opportunity to reflect on our experiences of the day and to gear up for tomorrow. There is a warm exchange between our group members and we head off to prepare for more tomorrow.


Tuesday is a repeat of Monday and we see progress in the rows of block in place and the skills needed to accomplish all of our tasks. The sun is high and bright and while our tent provides shade during our water breaks and we monitor each other for excessive sun exposure. Most of us are quite pale and definitely gringos!


Our return to Casa Hogar goes smoothly and the kids are definitely getting comfortable with us being there. New connections are in place and little bonds can be seen growing. I take great pleasure watching my kids connect with the Casa kids. It is great to watch them work hard of love freely! We all hit the showers like the speed of light as we have dinner "out" this evening and we need to be on the bus by 6 latest. We head out to a Mexican feast, some very cold cervesas and a little shopping in the old part of the city.


Wednesday after a trip to visit some nearby ruins, our group splits in 2. We need painters for a recently completed house while others continue with the block work. Six of our crew peal off with large buckets of blue and yellow paint ready to put some finishing touches on a new home. Meanwhile our block work has reached the height where the rebar goes in and the scaffolding goes up. Lifting becomes a bit harder and although our progress slows some, our enthusiasm doesn't wane. Substantial progress is made and we might just finish up tomorrow! 


Wednesday evening the kids fix us a pancake dinner and we take on the clean up only to discover that the kitchen sink has no hot water - it hasn't for some time. This is a different culture we're in and the reality of that is sinking in more and more every day. I am humbled by my naiveté. There is angst in the group around this issue - is there something we can do to improve these conditions? We talk about it in our evening debrief and there is openness to exploring solutions - plans begin to form.


Thursday morning and another early start for me. I come downstairs from the dorm, turn on the coffee and hit the shower. When I come out I find these little ones sweeping the grounds and picking up debris. They do their chores without fuss or complaint but with laughter. They treasure this place that is a sanctuary for them. The streets are one of the only alternatives available. After a great breakfast we all head off to complete our projects and finish by noon to a round of high fives. We have completed the block work in record time (2 hours under in fact) and there is a sense of pride that puffs us all out a bit. Pictures are taken and cleanup goes quickly.


We return to Casa Hogar to a new set of tasks one of which is to organize all of the bounty that we have brought down with us! 2 very large tables are covered with clothes and school supplies collected by many friends up north. In fact, 18 of the 19 travelers had to check 2 suitcases because of the abundance we had been provided! One very large box of legos came as well and that got opened Thursday afternoon and caused quite a stir. Thank you all for your generosity!!


Tonight is pizza night and Domino's does deliver here. Many, many boxes of hot pizza are shared with our crew and the kids -- this doesn't feel foreign at all. In the midst of 40+ kids, 19 visitors, 4 staff and nearly 30 pizzas there is a thin layer just above chaos but that doesn't stop these kids from taking care of each other. Several are blind and being helped by other kids. Several are in wheelchairs being helped by other kids, while several are deaf and others are living with other types of challenges. But no one has to get by alone. They are like those wonderful characters from Alexandre Dumas - the Three Musketeers - it's one for all and all for one!


Friday is a wind down day for some, a lot of kid time and some packing starting to happen as our plane leaves at 6:15 the next morning. But others are hard at work at Casa Hogar building a base for the new kitchen hot water heater. We get it together, set in concrete and painted by mid afternoon, and while the plumbing hook-up will be done after we leave we all have a sense that we have left our mark in a good way at this amazing place where love lives out in the open.


Saying goodbye before we depart for the afternoon and evening is a painful process. It will be hard not having these kids with us tomorrow and beyond. There really is only one solution - we have to go back to see them again!


Our visit, made possible by Simply Smiles and the generosity of each traveler has paid great dividends. We have come back with hearts more full than we ever imagined and our eyes opened to a new world we didn't know existed. These are our kids and they need our love too.


Thank you, Bryan Nurnberger, for your inspiration, your courage and your leadership.


Simply Smiles


Mary Healey presents Bob Spencer with supplies contributed by Russell Library employees.