On a Mission for Better Dental Health

Maple Grove volunteers change dental health in the Dominican Republic.
Volunteer team members Dr. Monica Alley and assistant Amy Gustafson treat a little girl during a recent visit oversees.

Dave McCarty, the current pastor of outreach and mission at Lord of Life Lutheran Church, took his first trip to the Dominican Republic in 2001 (during his tenure with a different church). He saw a great need in this impoverished area and invited some members of his church to come along and provide health services; he couldn’t have anticipated the friendships that would be formed or the strides made in health in these villages, connecting two communities across the world.

In 2008, the church began building a community center and health clinic in the mountains of the San Cristobal providence. The people in this region were in great need of dental care and McCarty invited dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants to help. “We began by using whatever tables and chairs we could find as dentist chairs, and just using the dental tools we brought,” he says. Today, the health clinic is fully functional, and a group of volunteer dentists returns each January to help local dentists in any way they can.

“Where we’re working truly has no health care,” McCarty says. “I explain that very seldom do you see yourself in a lifesaving environment for dentists, but in these cases, bad dental hygiene can be like a deadly disease.” While the group is there, people come from neighboring areas to line up early in the morning for their appointments, and the volunteers work all day.

They stay for only a week, but this is long enough to provide care and educate the kids in the village about oral health. “Their teeth are just bombed out in pain, and they have no idea what’s causing it,” explains Pat Bolin, one of the dental hygienists who has now been on five trips to this village.

Bolin came along when they started looking for volunteers. She had been on mission trips before, but left feeling ineffective and was looking for a way to use her talents. She plans to continue going to the Dominican Republic for as long as she can.

The dentists pull teeth, put in fillings, give antibiotics and provide false teeth for those who need them. Recently, they have also been able to clean teeth and give fluoride treatments, and the quality of care is improving each year. At first the dentists addressed specific problems, but in recent years they have aimed at getting to the root cause: oral hygiene.

“They suck on citrus fruits all day and eat a lot of sugar cane, it’s kind of their candy. The acid and sugar just rot the teeth out,” Bolin explains. But, because the group continues to invest in the community and promote health, they have noticed strides being made. “Last year we went out and walked in the neighborhood, and at a couple of houses we saw their toothbrushes out and airing,” Bolin says. “We said, ‘All right!’”

Dentist Monica Alley has been on two trips and is touched by the difference they are making. She grew up in India, and had seen the difference simple health care practices can make in developing countries. “For me, it’s a fulfilling kind of experience,” she says. “It teaches you things that we should be thankful for.”

Bolin and Alley are grateful to use their skills to contribute to something bigger than themselves. It’s a simple way to make a big difference while also building relationships and learning more about the world.

“There’s an awful lot of friendships that have been built. Oftentimes we find our world getting much smaller and our God getting much bigger,” McCarty says. “We learn an awful lot from the folks we meet in the Dominican Republic.”