Global Dental Relief by Laurie Mathews

Just Back from Kenya

In February 2013, 20 intrepid volunteers traveled to Africa to inaugurate Global Dental Relief 's first dental clinic in Kenya. The clinic was held at the Kikuyu Dental Hospital outside of the capital of Nairobi in a beautiful eight-chair dental facility. Over the course of five days, volunteers treated 1,038 children in a clinic rich with new friendships and time shared between vastly different cultures and life experiences.

Volunteers included four dentists, two hygienists and 11 nondental volunteers - a nurse, photographer, realtor, lawyer, several retirees and others - who came from Canada, the U.S. and Germany. The group was joined by Dr. Wambugu, the director of the dental hospital, and his very able Kenyan staff (Fig. 1).

As the clinic got underway, volunteers discovered the highlight of the whole experience: the wonderful Kenyan children. The first line of 50 children formed at the door, each child holding a dental chart. The air burst with giggles, chatter and excitement as these terrific kids waited - each with a wide open smile and an interest in discussing the proceedings and many other topics with the volunteers (Fig. 2).

Each day began with toothbrush instruction, an energetic, highly interactive experience led by volunteer Maro Casparian from Denver (Fig. 3). Maro had the children chanting "two times a day" and "touch every tooth" while singing, dancing and calling out answers to oral health questions. This sight was so tender that volunteers repeatedly left the clinic to go outside and join in the sharing of songs, stories and education.

The clinic experience for patients began with an initial exam by one of two "intake" dentists. Those needing further care were given anesthesia and sent for restorations and extractions. The remainder received a cleaning and fluoride treatment and then exited the clinic with a carefully selected sticker of their choice. Generally, children had good oral health; approximately 40 percent of the patients needed extractions or restorations, though the percent needing care noticeably increased with age.

The children were a vibrant part of each day, making up new names for themselves as they awaited their exams. Most creative was a boy who announced his new name was "Pain Killer." As volunteer Mary Miller, retiree from Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and six-time GDR volunteer says: "It was so easy to flow into the new environment of Kenya. The kids sit in the dental chairs with apprehension and slide out of the same chair with huge smiles because they made new friends and had someone do something good for them."

Matt Hart, a golf pro working in the clinic to sterilize instruments, met a boy he will never forget - a savvy six-year-old who tugged on his scrubs and told him he needed to go home, knowing he was next up to get a tooth pulled. As Matt says: "I bought it hook, line and sinker! So many great memories and so many 'firsts' for me. It truly was a special experience" (Fig. 4).

Mid-way through the week, volunteers experienced the second highlight as they headed to Lake Nakuru for a day of rest and safari. Surrounded by a panorama of zebras, rhinos and giraffes, it finally sunk in that they were far from home and truly in Africa, a wondrous place unlike anywhere else on earth (Figs. 5 and 6).

In five days, volunteers treated 1,038 children with 500 restorations, 122 extractions, 202 cleanings and 700 fluoride treatments. As the final day drew to a close, the group was somber with the thought of leaving the children and the critical dental care they needed.

The experience is best captured by Dr. Jimmy Nelson (Figs. 7 and 8) from Wyoming who said: "Sitting with this beautiful, braided-haired Kenya girl, timid but trusting as she opens her mouth, I was struck with a rush of thoughts about all that I enjoy in my life. I had to catch my breath and scoot back a minute to compose myself, overwhelmed with the knowledge that because I have been given much, I too must give. It is such a treat to give to those who have very little - and from this experience I receive so much!"

Join Us on Future Trips

In 2013, Global Dental Relief volunteers travel to six countries - Nepal, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Guatemala and Kenya - to provide dental care to children (Fig. 9). Trips range from seven to 21 days and include a five-to-six day dental clinic, followed by optional sightseeing. Volunteers pay their own expenses, and Global Dental Relief provides the supplies, equipment, patients and organization.

Trips are open to dental professionals - dentists, hygienists and dental assistants, and non-dental volunteers. Students, lawyers, social workers, spouses and friends who join provide critical clinic support. Non-dental volunteers manage the lines of children, help with charting and records, assist dentists and sterilize instruments. They assist in all the duties that make each clinic effective and fun for volunteers and children alike.

Clinic days are intense and rewarding. Days start with a line of children arriving, excitedly calling out the local greeting of Namaste, Juley or Hola! They peer into the clinic, pointing and discussing the day ahead. The clinic runs six or seven dental chairs where each child receives an exam, a cleaning when possible, and all extractions and restorations needed. Each child is given a toothbrush, oral hygiene instruction and a fluoride treatment (Fig. 10).

Volunteers never tire of watching the children who come to each clinic, children who are often so excited they walk to the examination chair with their mouths' already wide open. Later, these same children can be seen outside, enthusiastically pointing into their open mouths and explaining to the curious kids still in line about what lies ahead.

Dr. Duane Erickson (Fig. 11) is an orthodontist from Maryland who travels to Guatemala and revives his restorative skills working in GDR clinics. After his third trip with GDR, Duane said: "This was an incredibly moving and rewarding experience. The faces of those children will stay with me for a long time. It takes so little for us to make a difference in their lives. I'm already looking forward to going back."

Most importantly, Global Dental Relief returns to each school every two years to give children consistent, long-term care. While hard to conceive for us in the United States, dental care is simply not available to the general population in many parts of the world. For children, a life without dental care can lead to chronic pain, infection, sleepless nights and poor nutrition. GDR's volunteers provide such care for children, leading to live longer, healthier lives.

As long-time volunteer Dee Ossel (Fig. 12) says: "There is no greater feeling than watching these kids go from painful infected teeth to laughing healthy smiles. Volunteering is a great way to see the world and help others, but in the process you will receive far more than you could ever give."

Make a difference by giving the gift of health to a child. To join a Global Dental Relief trip, visit for 2013-14 trip schedules and itineraries, call 303-858-8857 or e-mail

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