Dentists like things that last. Whether they're placing porcelain crowns, performing orthodontics on kids who will carry a healthy smile into adulthood, or educating patients about home hygiene care, it's all about providing care that lasts—for life.
Providing care that lasts is more challenging in underserved areas. When it comes to using their skills to help the underserved in other countries, many dentists feel frustrated. Typically they volunteer in a makeshift clinic set up in a school or church in a remote, poverty-stricken area, where scores of people wait to be relieved of their pain. Dentists do what they can with the limited time, equipment and supplies that are available to them. It is important work. Still, many dentists go home feeling frustrated that they couldn't do more—they know that for every person they helped, there are many more who will never see a dentist.
When Spear Education set out to start its humanitarian dental foundation, the organization's staffers talked to a lot of dentists. They asked questions such as: What do dentists see as important when it comes to giving back? What would inspire them to want to get involved?
What Spear staffers heard repeatedly was that dentists wanted to be involved in something that endures. They didn't want to just pull some teeth or relieve immediate pain—they wanted to contribute to the long-term health of people who most desperately needed help. They wanted to do work that would have lasting implications. They are dentists, after all.
Spear listened, and in January 2011 the Open Wide Foundation was created. The foundation offers a different approach to humanitarian dental care. This approach goes beyond the traditional acute-care model by offering underserved communities a path to sustainable dental care. This is accomplished through supporting the development of new, permanent clinics in places where no access to skilled dental care had previously existed. Working with local communities, Open Wide helps get clinics started with donated equipment (Patterson, A-dec, Sirona), and offers training and support so that new clinics can thrive independently—for life.
The Peronia clinic—A model for the future
Peronia, Guatemala, a city of approximately 80,000 with no trained dentists, became the site of the foundation's first clinic. Open Wide worked hand in hand with local community and government leaders to build and equip the facility, which opened in January 2012. The facility now offers comprehensive, restorative and preventive dental care, year-round.
From the beginning, the mandate has been to create a sustainable operation. Open Wide dentist volunteers have been working alongside the clinic staff and young Guatemalan dentists to teach, coach and guide the process of learning how to run a clinic. This process included the use of new materials and equipment; oral-health screenings and preventive care; mastering new procedures, and managing patient care.
It is a defined training and transition process, and when it's complete, Open Wide will transfer total responsibility for the clinic to the community, leaving a legacy of good dental care. Open Wide will then go on to repeat the process in other underserved communities.
This approach is attracting attention. Dentists who are looking for a way to share their skills and talents, who want an adventure in a new culture and want to know that their efforts will have lasting significance, are embracing the Open Wide philosophy. Since 2012, 400 volunteers have traveled to Guatemala to help.
"One of our team members, Dr. Walt Denham, had the opportunity to do eight upper anterior composite veneers on the teeth of a young lady in her 20s whose mouth was riddled with tooth decay," said Dr. Mike Johnson, a Mesa, Arizona dentist, of his experience as an Open Wide volunteer. "After three hours of tedious work, we gave her a mirror. She was speechless for some moments and then burst into tears. She told us, 'I am one of nine children from a very poor family and this is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.' Her reaction brought tears to our whole team. For us, being able to use our skills to give her such a life-changing experience was a feeling difficult to put into words."
An idea that's taking off
Now the word is spreading in Guatemala. In the past year, Open Wide officials have reached beyond Peronia to government and community leaders in neighboring areas. The organization is inspiring them to look more closely at the endemic problems associated with lack of dental care for their citizens. This awareness is helping leaders explore solutions for affordable care and local access to dental clinics.
Having seen the success of the Peronia model, 15 mayors from other rural areas are expressing interest in bringing better oral health care to their communities. Working with severely restricted budgets, they are hiring dentists and carving out funds to pay for clinic buildings and supplies. Open Wide is providing them with donated equipment—a financial commitment too big for these rural communities to handle on their own. In this way, Open Wide has already helped establish five self-sustaining clinics in areas of Guatemala where no clinics or dentists were previously available. To ensure that quality-care standards are maintained, the Open Wide Peronia clinic offers training and support to these rural clinics. Additionally, Open Wide has partnered with local dental universities to offer advanced training opportunities for young dentists at universities and in the Peronia clinic.
Reaching out by reaching in
The Open Wide plan is working better than any of the Open Wide founders who came together four years ago could have imagined. It's a new approach to humanitarian dental service and a new model for bringing sustainable dental care to a country that desperately needs it. This work also has been a catalyst for hope in the lives of people who had all but given up hope. There's a huge potential for the ripple effect of lasting change, in that people who are helped may reach out to help others. It all starts with the volunteer work of kind-hearted dentists, and the rewards stretch far beyond oral health.
Lisa Wysel, co-founder of the Open Wide Foundation, is an educator and activist who believes passionately that making a difference for a single child or family can have a far-reaching impact on a larger community. Wysel's professional background is in nearly every sector of education with a particular emphasis in language and literacy. She served a publicly elected term as school board president in the Montecito Union School District among other accomplishments. Wysel's interest in Latin America began in 2007 with a trip to Antigua, Guatemala, and soon after the vision for the Open Wide Foundation was born. She enjoys growing ever-closer to being truly fluent in Spanish and when she isn't practicing her Español, Wysel enjoys spending time with her children and grandchildren.