By Selah Curran-Blakely
I remember being as young as five years old and never wanting to go to the dentist. I always disliked the taste of the dental fluoride. I would constantly complain about how gross it was and would always request a different flavor because I “couldn’t stand it.” Even at my most recent dental appointment three months ago, I complained in my head and out loud to my dentist to let her know that it was my least favorite part of my dental check-ups.
Our mission as a team of volunteers through Cross Cultural Solutions was to educate and help spread awareness about the importance of dental hygiene. Dental hygiene is a huge public health issue, especially within the Tecpan community. During my experience, I served at two different schools in the Mayan Highland community of Guatemala called Chuitiabajal and Panimacoc.
When I arrived at Chuitiabajal on my first day of volunteering at the school around 8:30 a.m., I didn’t know what to expect. I knew I would be teaching kids how to properly floss their teeth and how to brush their teeth to prevent cavities. I was convinced it would be easy for me to do so, considering that I do it every day. However, I had forgotten that I would have to communicate with the children and staff solely by speaking Spanish and the indigenous language of their community called Kaqchikel.
I immediately noticed multiple differences between my school environment and theirs when I walked into the school and classrooms. There were about five classrooms with windows and no air conditioning or heat installed. In the middle of the surrounding classrooms was their multi-purpose gym court, that was used for gym class, soccer games or any exercise activity. There was a water pump/ sink that they called “la pila” that was their only source of water in the entire school. Not only was their water unsanitary but the pipe that it was coming out of was dirty and needed to be tilted to get the most possible water out of it. I also noticed that it was the kids’ duty to fill up a bucket of water from the sink/ faucet area and carry it all the way (full and heavy) to the tiny bathroom and dump it into the toilet that they had, just for it to work and be able to flush. It was so heavy that even three kids carrying it together seemed like a struggle. Knowing that they have to go through that whole process just to be able to go to the bathroom, made me grateful for how easy it is for me to access the bathroom here at my school. I also observed all of the kids go to that same water pipe to wipe their faces off, wash themselves off, or just to drink. It looked very difficult to drink out of because they had to tilt their head to a certain angle just to drink water that wasn’t even clean.
Seeing how these kids live and function every day at school opened my eyes to the privileged conditions that I have been granted to live in. My assignment was to play games with the kids about flossing and brushing their teeth for the first part of the day. I incorporated the games into my overall lesson to make the classroom environment a fun place to learn about dental hygiene. It was very challenging for me to get the attention of and instruct these energetic children in Spanish, a challenge I was willing to accept and I’m happy that I did.
For the second half of the day, my volunteering team and I completed dental exams for each student by grade. We screened them for their amount of cavities, recorded our findings so it could be communicated to their parents, and then applied fluoride to their teeth to prevent the future formation cavities. Shortly after following this schedule on my first day at the school, I soon realized these children barely have access to dental treatment or resources at all including access to toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss or working/ clean water to even brush their teeth with. It was so surprising to me that some of the kids didn’t even know what dental floss was or what it was used for.
Putting on gloves, preparing amounts of fluoride and washing dental equipment led me to realize that the work I was doing was probably the only dental experience or dental check-up that these kids have ever had. After observing the permanent damage to these children’s adult teeth at such a young age, I realized that performing a small task such as applying fluoride to Guatemalan children’s teeth, was integral in their future dental health.
After reflecting on this experience, I am so grateful for the ability to have access to dental care for myself. On the last day, we provided every student with toothpaste and an electric toothbrush. Dental health not only affects their physical health, but can affect the appearance of their teeth which could lead to self-esteem and confidence issues. Helping to improve these children’s dental health and physical appearance by making them feel more confident, led me to realize that making a positive impact on others’ lives by serving, is the thing that I am most passionate about. Even participating in “the little things,” can have such a huge future impact on these children in an under-resourced community. Unfortunately putting fluoride on these kids’ teeth wouldn’t reverse their present tooth decay and damage, but it will help to prevent future cavities from forming.
Because the children had multiple dental caries, our team was there for a limited amount of time, and we did not have the correct equipment we needed, we couldn’t correctly treat each cavity that each student had. After serving for three days during my first week, it was time to say goodbye this this school. Even though I was sad to leave them, I was able to reflect on the things that I was able to do to help improve their dental hygiene. This made my trip even more meaningful. Reflecting on my experience led me to wonder if one day I could create an ongoing solution to the dental disparity that exists in Técpan, Guatemala.