The idea was simple, the sentiment behind it pure altruism.
Its execution, however, was anything but simple. About a decade ago, a Naugatuck native, deeply moved by the dire conditions he saw in a remote region of Mexico, returned home and collected supplies for an orphanage there. Bryan Nurnberger filled a donated school bus with medicine, clothing, toys and toiletries, then steered it south for the Casa Hogar orphanage in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Due to bureaucratic hurdles at the border, it took Nurnberger six months to deliver the much-needed bus and supplies. But Nurnberger never gave up.
“At 24, with no money, no training, I realized I could have an impact,” said Nurnberger, now 35. “I had the ability to make a difference.”
He initially committed to an afternoon volunteering at Casa Hogar. He was a recent University of Colorado graduate who briefly worked as a school teacher in the early 2000s. He left to become a rock-climbing instructor, but suffered an injury and while rehabilitating, traveled to Mexico. He never planned to devote his life to serving the orphanage. But after he saw a disabled boy at Casa Hogar, who needed help being hoisted from his wheelchair, Nurnberger asked himself: “Who will lift Ricardo?” He went back, again and again.
A decade later, Nurnberger helms the nonprofit Simply Smiles, which has projects in Mexico and the United States that try to improve the lives of some of the world’s neediest and most challenged people. Since Nurnberger founded it in 2003, the nonprofit has spent nearly $1.5 million on projects, including modernizing facilities at the initial Casa Hogar home, expanding services there and at its sister facility in a remote jungle village.
Simply Smiles held one of its annual fundraising efforts Saturday. Specifically, the event raised money for eradicating parasitic hookworm infections in a remote part of Oaxaca and buying 2.5 acres to build a new home for orphaned, disabled and needy Mexican children that Simply Smiles will administer. Also, it aimed to secure funding to build greenhouses and mount a suicide-prevention program on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. The group notes that there is a suicide on the reservation every two weeks.
The group is finalizing a coffee cooperative of farmers in Oaxaca through a new, fair trade growing effort. Sales will benefit the farmers and their families, as well as Simply Smiles, which will use the profits for projects that will help that community.
“It’s a holistic approach,” said Nurnberger, who hopes to have the coffee in Connecticut stores this fall.
Poverty in Mexico deeply affected Nurnberger, but he was unprepared for the grinding despair and deprivation he confronted when he went to South Dakota at the urging of a friend.
“I didn’t understand — didn’t believe — that there would be poverty on the scale of the places that we’re working with in Mexico,” he said, adding within 45 minutes of arriving he “knew instinctively that we were going to work on the reservation. That’s how stark the poverty was.”
He recounted trailers with missing windows that allowed snow to collect inside during the brutal winters on the plains.
Nurnberger spent two years building relationships with people around the community of La Plant, where unemployment exceeds 90 percent and the suicide rate is three times the national average. This past summer, Nurnberger said, the people agreed to partner with Simply Smiles.
“Now the door is wide open for us to right the wrongs on the reservation. We’re uniquely seated because of the relationships we’ve developed,” said Nurnberger.
This summer, hundreds of volunteers will help repair, remodel and even replace homes.
“We’re staring with (building) one new home, but internally, our goal is to build lots. We’ll do the first home and see how it’s received,” said Nurnberger. He said repairing and building homes in Mexico was easier because the climate was not as extreme.
The organization maintains a global reach, but has had a significant, albeit indirect, impact in Connecticut. Hundreds of the estimated 3,000 volunteers Simply Smiles enlisted over the years have hailed from Connecticut. They include school and church groups on service trips.
Ann Merriam Feinberg, vice president of the nonprofit Connecticut Community Foundation in Waterbury, started supporting Simply Smiles six years ago, holding fundraisers at her Middlebury home. She proselytized about the organization’s work and its leader’s commitment.
“Certainly, there are lots of people doing similar things around the country and around the world, but the way Bryan approaches it is very different,” she said. “The philosophy is not to go in and tell people what they need. The process is, go in, talk to people, build relationships and then make decisions together to see how we can make a difference.”
Feinberg, now chairwoman of Simply Smiles’ board, said Nurnberger’s impassioned-yet-humble approach works.
“The way that people respond to Bryan and the way they respond to what we do, it’s remarkable. Either being there, or hearing somebody talk about being there and hearing Bryan talk, you just either want to pull out your checkbook or volunteer,” she said.
She described how Simply Smiles built houses for people who once called a Mexican dump home. Today, 27 families live in cinderblock houses, and the city extended electrical service to the area called “Progress Lane”
“I just want to cry at every turn,” said Feinberg. “It’s life changing, it really is.”
Nurnberger applies that same devotion to helping at home in Southport, where he moved a few years ago. He and his wife, Kristin Graves, now share their home with Gabriela Chavez Hernandez, 24. Nurnberger met Hernandez when she was living at Casa Hogar. Today, she attends Norwalk Community College on a scholarship Simply Smiles offered. Nurnberger called opening his home to Hernandez motivating.
“We realize it’s not in theory, we can have that kind of commitment to every child. Gabby is a living, breathing testament to that philosophy, of being effective. It gives us that confidence,” he said. “We look at a kid who’s 6 or 5, but maybe someday he or she could be in college because of our support. That’s not going to happen if you’re just sending rice or water. It takes a depth of relationship.”
An hour into talking about a subject he admitted he could prattle on about for days, Nurnberger turned suddenly demure. In the midst of his recent work, the Lakota people on the Cheyenne River reservation, bestowed on Nurnberger a Native American name, he mentioned. The name carried deep significance for Nurnberger, who first encountered people reticent to cooperate, let alone, collaborate, with Simply Smiles.
“It was a huge honor,” said Nurnberger. “It meant that they wanted Simply Smiles to be part of who they are and that they trusted us.”
So what name did Nurnberger receive? Nurnberger hesitated: “It’s a bit embarrassing.”
Reluctantly, he recited his Lakota name: Cante Waste Wichasha, or Kind-Hearted Man.