On a road less traveled

June 1, 2012
In February, I joined a team of eight volunteers on a humanitarian dental mission to benefit populations in abject poverty ...

Humanitarian discusses dental aid provided in Central America

By Susan Clark, RDH, OM

In February, I joined a team of eight volunteers on a humanitarian dental mission to benefit populations in abject poverty in areas of Southern Honduras. Our group went under the leadership of Steven Mentzer, president of Central American Relief Efforts (CARE). The goal of CARE is to deliver $400,000 in humanitarian aid to Honduras each year. To accomplish this they seek donations from several sources to provide the resources for funding of medicines, dental supplies, school supplies, shipping containers of equipment, and an organizational team.

I had the good fortune of interviewing Steve regarding the inception of CARE and his vision for future missions.

Clark: Thank you for your time, Steve. Can you tell me when and how CARE began?

Mentzer: Well, I began my career in a brokerage firm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. One day I decided to leave the firm and commit two years to volunteering at a local food and clothing bank. Someone from my church invited me to go on a medical mission to Honduras, and I accepted.

It was after that trip that my vision grew and I realized my efforts would be better spent in a developing country. Over the years, because I could not get the funding I needed on a grander scale, I decided, along with nine of my friends, to start Central American Relief Efforts, which is a nonprofit organization.

Initially, we started out funding medical brigades, but we noticed there was a tremendous need for dental care in the elementary schools. Many schoolchildren have never owned a toothbrush or used toothpaste. I feel very strongly about educating the young children about the importance of dental hygiene and providing some fluoride varnish treatments. That is why I began CARE in 2007.

Clark: How can dental personnel in the United States get involved and go on a mission trip?

Mentzer: Well, as you know, Susan, because you went on this last trip, we had five dental hygienists onboard — Carol Martin, Leeann Easley, Rose Schumacher, and Jules Nulph. I am just amazed that a hygienist would take their vacation time and finance their own trip to volunteer to care for these children. You all have such a passion for your profession and are willing to do and go anywhere to support a worthy cause. I am most grateful and overwhelmed.

Our group can take up to as many as 12 to 15 personnel at a time. They can go online to www.carelief.org or contact Carol Martin at [email protected] for more information. I believe it is a great experience for all hygienists. They are in an environment that they are not normally in and there is a lot they can learn by being there — not only culturally, but medically and dentally as well. Needless to say, it is a tremendous benefit to a population who would not normally be provided with such dental services.

The Honduras people are very friendly. Your stay is very comfortable. You do not stay in tents or huts, or sleep under mosquito nets. A safe, clean hotel is provided. It is not extreme roughing it. CARE is aware of security concerns volunteers have when working in foreign countries. We have armed security personnel with our group 24 hours a day, every day and everywhere we travel. As needed, we also have uniformed police accompany us. We take every precaution to ensure our volunteers are safe. We have never had an incident in the 10 years I have traveled in Honduras.

Clark: What do you feel is the most important aspect of the care provided?

Mentzer: Education tops the list by far! I want to educate the children, teachers, and the parents about the harmful effect sugar has on their teeth and overall health. If we can decrease the amount of candies and soda pop these children ingest, and take a proactive approach to reducing the rate of decay, these children can have a better quality of life.

Our goal is to visit as many of the underserved children in these local and rural areas as possible to offer nutritional and dental education, teeth cleanings, fluoride treatments, and fluoride varnish applications. We even had a dentist in the group. In all, we were able to provide dental care to 650 to 700 children and their teachers. Seventy-five of those children seen had four or more open carious lesions, abscesses, and/or needed extractions. It is disheartening to see such an array of dental neglect and rampant tooth decay due to the lack of education. Therefore, the impact of dental volunteers down here is essential.

Clark: Where do you get your basic dental materials for your trips?

Mentzer: Our basic dental materials are funded through various generous dental companies. This year we were fortunate enough to secure enough fluoride varnish kits for 500 children from VOCO America.

Xlear, Inc. supplied over 15,000 blister packages of gum for the eleven schools we visited to last them the whole school year. The government provides school lunches for 80% of the children, and 20% of the lunches come from External Purpose. Because teachers were given instructions for administering the Spry gum after every meal, these children will now be able to help themselves reduce the harmful bacteria in their mouths that has been causing their dental decay.

Karen Savoie, the director of Education Cavity Free at Three, donated their Cavity Free at Three booklets written in Spanish. Rose Schumacher’s employer, Dr. David Winegar, donated toothbrushes, ibuprofen, amoxicillin, prophy angles, instruments, and prophy paste. Betsy Reynolds donated a Zen cordless prophy angle.

I do two to three fundraisers each year in my hometown of Lancaster, Pa., to solicit funds and support for our efforts. Tax-deductible donations are accepted throughout the year and can be sent payable to CARE c/o Carol Martin, 22 Laurie Lane, Lititz, PA. 17543. I would just ask you to specify that you would like your donation to go toward the dental program. These donations will help us purchase fluoride, anesthesia, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and things of that sort.

Clark: Tell me a little about school life for the children.

Mentzer: Funding for schools comes from the centralized government. This government gives the local government a budget every year. Then the local government determines where schools will be built or renovated. CARE tries to maximize donations received with the local government and other countries to provide needed supplies such as pencils, paper, rulers, and educational teaching materials.

The community is not large enough to sustain one teacher per grade; therefore, two, three, and even sometimes six grades may be in one room with one teacher, teaching all grades. Unfortunately, English is not taught in the schools. However, in the town of Pespire, where our group stayed, an English-speaking school was established, where 20 to 30 motivated children can go. After three years of English, CARE offers a scholarship fund where some of the outstanding students are given the opportunity to go to a private school to continue their English education.

Most rural villages cannot provide education past the sixth grade, however. There is high school, but these schools are generally 1½ hours away by bus. Education is free in high school, but they must be able to purchase a uniform and school supplies to attend and a means to get to the schools. Unfortunately, the logistics to get from their homes to the bus depot is extremely difficult and time consuming. Therefore, the majority of the children receive a limited education.

The minimum wages is $250 per month; 70% of the population lives on $2 to $3 a day. Most of the schoolchildren we served will end up working in kitchens or out in the fields. There really is not much chance for growth and development beyond the sixth grade.

Clark: What is the farthest distance a child might have to walk to school?

Mentzer: A typical day for a child might begin at 5 a.m. School begins at 7 to 8 a.m. and ends at 12:30 to 1 p.m. Since Honduras is in the tropics, the dry season gets too hot to keep a child’s attention in the heat for more than four hours. They go to school for nine months, with a break from November-January. June through mid-December is the rainy season. Many of the dirt pathways become unsafe and impassable to travel. The rivers overflow their banks. These families can be isolated from up to two to three months at a time.

Honduras is located right in the heart of Central America, with Guatemala to the west, El Salvador to the southwest, and Nicaragua to the east. It is divided into eighteen departments. Choluteca is the area we decided to concentrate the dental mission.

Four-by-four wheel drive trucks are a necessity on the rural roads. The roads are more like rock paths than paved roads. It took our group two hours to drive fifteen miles to a school one day. Then we walked another 20 minutes with all our dental supplies in tow to reach our destination. It is not a matter of distance, but of logistics. This is the second poorest country in the Americas, and they simply do not have the funding for roads.

In addition to the five hygienists on the mission, Glenn and Flo Mattox and Rich and Jo Trommer participated. Glenn and Rich offered eye exams to the students, while Flo and Jo conducted nutritional education and oral home-care instructions. The women created good foods/bad foods posters, and along with our English/Spanish-speaking interpreter were able to help the children learn how to make wiser food choices.

Each volunteer shared with me the passion to serve and a heart for the needy.

“These people are so appreciative,” Carol stated. “To see them flourish and their interest in learning how they can help themselves is extremely inspiring and rewarding.”

Rose told me that she “loves seeing the smiles on their faces when we finish their cleaning and we get them out of pain.”

As in the United States, education is the most important message the hygienists felt they could offer. To take a proactive approach toward prevention rather than treating symptoms is their mutual goal. RDH

Susan Clark, RDH, OM, is a key opinion leader. She is the president of the San Diego County Dental Hygienists’ Society, a delegate to the California Dental Hygienists’ Association’s House of Delegates, an alternate delegate to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, and an active member of the California Dental Hygienists’ Political Action Committee. Susan has been a hygienist for the past 32 years. Clark is the author of “Exploring Dental Hygiene, Finding the Hidden Rewards.” She is the Southwest Regional Xylitol Educator for Xlear.

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