Dentists go the Distance

Crammed into a tiny bus, huge-hearted volunteers cover many miles to reach remote communities who are without regular access to dental care. Roads narrow and switchback, hugging hillsides and snaking their way into villages tucked into clouds.

In San Pedro Belaju, on our first dental brigade clinic day in the Department of Quiche, Guatemala, we are met upon arrival by a parade of desks and tables being carried overhead by community members. They are pulled out of classrooms and kitchens and become patient beds for our temporary clinic in the community hall. A generator is fired up, equipment and supplies are unpacked, and people come. People come from all over – some live just down the road, others have walked for miles.

Change for Children has recently begun working in this region of Guatemala, expanding our technology for education initiatives to reach communities with low literacy levels. While we know that when it comes to helping people succeed, dental care is just one piece of a puzzle, we also know that toothaches and infections can result in, at best, sleepless nights and missed school and work days and, at worst, vulnerability to disease, exacerbating life’s daily challenges.

Outside the hall, a queue has formed – an orderly horseshoe of plastic chairs fills fast. In three different communities over four days, we are kept on our toes (except for the dentists who are sometimes on their knees – adapting to tables too low to the ground to perform dentistry standing up). We wear the rubber on our soles making laps between the outdoor waiting rooms of sorts and the indoor clinic spaces. With the help of translators, word cues taped to walls for our reference in Spanish and K’iche and Poqomchiʼ, and the simplicity of handshakes and smiles, we are humbled to be entrusted by strangers. Connecting, and creating a safe space, the team goes the extra mile.

And we are received with kindness. By boys who want to play futbol, by girls who relish the painting of a mural, by women who share their stories, by teachers who welcome us into their schools. Sure, we also encounter impassable roads and our bus overheats, and we navigate equipment failure, intermittent power, and curious bug bites. But, we are undeterred. Resilience is all around us.

While we aim to change someone else’s now with the kind of emergent care we are able to provide in the brigade context, it is often we who are inevitably changed. A change of mindset, perhaps. A change of priority, maybe. A change of perspective, almost certainly.

We travel and volunteer to remind ourselves that while we are small and the world is big, we are all connected. We come to learn that, though we might try, we can’t truly walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Not really. But, sometimes, putting miles on our own can lead to greater understanding just the same.

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