One of my goals for this sabbatical was to find dental volunteer programs in different parts of the world, both to compare and contrast the countries in terms of cultural norms, health education, and services offered. (I make this sound like some sort of thesis, but it’s really just out of personal interest). I was excited to come across an organization in Antigua, Guatemala called Common Hope (or locally, Familias de Esperanza). In addition to their program of sponsorship for Guatemalan children, they have developed an entire system of affiliation between families, local schools, neighborhoods, and their main campus in Antigua, which among other services, has a dental clinic. I arranged to volunteer with Common Hope for one week, both in their main clinic and in a rural satellite clinic.
On my first day, I was given an orientation tour. Lauren met me in the town square, where we took a van to a local neighborhood to see some of the school programs that have been started and also to visit the home of one the participating families. Like Habitat for Humanity in the U.S., CH encourages participants to pay for new homes through “sweat equity.” They also work with schools to develop basic rules for behavior for the young schoolchildren. They have found a noticeable difference in school “readiness” between children who participate in CH programs and those who don’t. The goal is to increase the chances that the children will be successful and stay in school. They try to accomplish this, Lauren said, by eliminating many common obstacles like problems with transportation and obtaining school supplies. What impressed me most was that Lauren stressed that this is not just “charity”: CH tries to make their system sustainable not by just giving money and services away, but by trying to incorporate accountability from all the participants so they can eventually live and work independently. (Kind of like, “Teach a man to fish….”)
The facilities at Familias de Esperanza are absolutely gorgeous with a hacienda-style design. There are several wings with volunteer quarters and a common area, a kitchen and cafeteria where we would eat lunch every day, a pharmacy, medical clinic, dental clinic, offices, and workshop. It was a lovely place to work!
Since the clinic was located just outside of town, I either had to take a local chicken bus there (which costs 1.5Q, or less than $.20) or a tuk-tuk for 15-20Q. My first day, I boarded a chicken bus – the first available ride home- only to discover that there were no empty seats. Note to self: I am too tall to stand on chicken buses. The (mercifully short) ride was spent half-standing, half squatting awkwardly in the aisle while holding the overhead railing in a death grip, trying not to hit my head on the ceiling while the bus barreled down the cobblestone road and over the ubiquitous speed bumps.
The next day, I took a tuk-tuk!
On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I did cleanings in the Familias de Esperanza clinic. (We had decided to limit the offered procedures to cleanings because of the obvious logistical problem of carrying other dental equipment and materials in my lone backpack for two months in hot weather!) Another Canadian volunteer named Lynne helped to organize the patient list, Eugenia would stop by to help me with any instrument or autoclave issues, and my awesome translator Chris cheerfully provided the (thrilling, I’m sure) service of assisting with dental cleanings.
On Tuesday and Thursday, I drove with Lesbia, a social worker, to a rural clinic in a very poor village called San Rafael. (I love the fact that we just happened to drive past an erupting volcano on the way to work! I could see plumes of ash in the distance). All of the patients here wore traditional dress. One of the volunteer groups, a team of pre-med students from Louisiana, was providing the services of head washing (anti-lice treatments were needed for many of the patients) and foot washing (some of the patients have improper or no footwear to wear on the dirt roads and so have cuts and sores; the team would wash and treat their feet and then distribute flip-flops and “Crocs.”) While Lesbia and the group of social workers led activities for the families, a medical team saw patients in their clinic, and my translator/assistant Micah and I did extractions and cleanings in the dental operatory.
I was glad to be able to help out with such a great organization. To find out more about Common Hope/Familias de Esperanza and their sponsorship programs, go to www.commonhope.org.