Th 264120

You Belong to the City

Oct. 1, 2007
June Caine, RDH, has a heart for the city, for the homeless, for ministry
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June Caine, RDH, has a heart for the city, for the homeless, for ministry

by Ann-Marie C. DePalma, RDH, MEd, FAADH

“You belong to the city, you belong to the night - livin in a river of darkness beneath the neon lights. You were born in the city, concrete under your feet, its in your blood, its in your moves, you’re a man of the street......”

The words of the 1985 Glenn Frey song “You Belong to the City” resounded in my mind as I listened to the words of hygienist June Caine. June lives in Tennessee and has been a clinical hygienist for more than 30 years. She worked as an assistant prior to dental hygiene school.

Last year, June, along with a group from the Peacemaker Institute of Boulder, Colo., traveled an extraordinary journey. June and other members of the group lived on the streets of Austin, Texas, for five nights and became street people. Street Retreat, as it was known, immerses participants in the way of the street, with no food, no money, no shelter - the true life of a street person.

Prior to practicing dental hygiene, June had been a volunteer hunger activist working with groups such as Volunteer in Missions for the United Methodist Church, where they visited groups in Nigeria, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Appalachia. She was involved in building schools, teaching English, promoting women’s programs, and other charitable activities. However, when she made the decision to follow dentistry, she left behind the volunteer ministry. From then on, there was always something missing.

June was lucky enough to be employed in dental hygiene in the wealthiest county in Tennessee, where she experienced remarkable dentistry. Over time, however, she decided to leave that practice to work part-time in two different dental offices, one in the poorest county of Tennessee. She began to see and hear things in that practice that astounded her. Patients were always complaining that TN Care (Medicaid) didn’t cover teeth whitening, or that patients were second- and third-generation welfare recipients. In addition, many patients were battling cancer or other terminal diseases, and ended up being cut by TN Care for their medical treatments. In one instance, she had a little girl in her chair who had witnessed the brutal murder of her mother at the hands of a jealous boyfriend. The child had been silent ever since. June had inadequate time to provide dental hygiene services to these patients, and she felt like she needed to return to her former ministry work.

At the same time, her daughter had attended a street retreat as part of her graduate studies in Colorado. Upon returning home, Liz told her mother how it had affected her life. June decided to participate too, never realizing how it would affect her physically and emotionally. Street Retreat strips one of identity, plunging the participant into a life of not knowing what to do or from where the next meal will come. It makes the individual work at understanding who he or she truly is. Street Retreat was led by Fleet Maull, an activist, psychotherapist, professor at Naropa University, and founder of the Peacemaker Institute. Fleet began a hospice program in prison after struggling with drugs himself. Peacemaker Institute follows Buddhist teachings, but all religions are welcomed to participate.

Before the Street Retreat, brushing and flossing were major concerns. While on the retreat, staying oriented was enough to deal with. June no longer judges patients. She sees them as people, not just another prophy.
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Participating in Street Retreat teaches that there is basic goodness in everyone. The homeless are kind, often giving up what they have to someone less fortunate. Some even gave up their places in the food lines to June so that she could be with her partner (assuming it was her husband)! The people who are homeless often smile whether they have teeth or not, and they appreciate what life has to offer.

Living on the streets is a test of survival. You eat when you can, since you never know when or where the next meal will come. Being in a food line doesn’t mean you will receive food; there is only so much to go around.

You are advised not to carry any cardboard, since cardboard is a sign to the police that you are sleeping on the street. Austin has a no-sleep zone, so the Street Retreat had to constantly be on the move. If you are found sleeping in a public library, you are asked to leave. Sleeping in other public areas is also discouraged since the police are on constant surveillance. The homeless learn to watch each other’s “back”; it is a dangerous world on the street. One is encouraged to be careful when begging; you don’t step into another begger’s “territory.” Free entertainment can be found anywhere and anytime in the city - one just has to appreciate the various forms of “entertainment” available. Only one shelter in the Austin area had hygiene supplies, and only those who won a lottery were allowed to participate. Another medical shelter had visitors pass through only after they were searched and X-rayed for potential weapons. Street people are truly the invisible people.

June never expected to experience the sights and sounds of a city as she did on the Street Retreat. She walked each day for seven or eight miles in triple-digit heat. A group consisted of 15 retreaters, and none had money or food. June’s preparation for the program began even before stepping onto the street with no washing, no bathing, no flossing, no toothbrushing. Somehow the group managed to collect money along the way, and whatever they found they gave to the food banks where they ate. The one saving grace each day was a lollipop! They lived life on the edge, and June was constantly afraid of being caught and losing her hygiene license. However, with all she experienced, she has a newfound appreciation for the simple things in life, especially dental hygiene. Before the Street Retreat, brushing and flossing were major concerns. While on the retreat, staying oriented was enough to deal with.

June no longer judges patients. She sees them as people, not just another prophy. The experience has inspired her to continue on in dental hygiene until a ministry position arises that will set her heart on fire. Although June feels that the term life-changing is overused, she believes that the Street Retreat indeed changed hers. Street Retreats are not for everyone, but for those who seek inner peace, it may be the “river that takes you out of darkness.”

“Now you’re back again and you’re feeling strange, so much has happened .......”Glenn Frey, “You Belong to the City”, 1985, Elektra/Asylum Records

About the Author

Ann-Marie C. DePalma, RDH, MEd, FAADH, is an assistant professor at Northern Essex Community College. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Dental Hygiene, member of ADHA, and other professional associations. Ann-Marie presents continuing education programs for hygienists and dental team members and has written numerous articles on a variety of topics. She can be reached at [email protected].