By Bradley Allf, Features Writer UNC Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases
In 1996, Angie Rhodes, DDS, spent her second summer of dental school providing health care and education to children living in an orphanage in Miacatlán, Mexico, as part of a program called the UNC Mexico Project. This summer her lifelong patient Roxie Braxton, now a third year dental student at UNC, went on the same trip.
Rhodes was thrilled when she learned that Braxton was going on the Mexico Project trip. “I knew that she would have an amazing experience and treasure her time there just as I still do,” says Rhodes. “The love and excitement hasn’t changed in 20 years!”
The UNC Mexico Project, which started in 1987, has a long history of service in Miacatlán. The project is a partnership between the UNC School of Dentistry and an international organization called “Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos” (NPH) that provides homes for orphaned and abandoned children in Latin America.
NPH was started back in 1954 by a priest named William Wasson who adopted a child convicted of stealing from his church in Mexico, rather than press charges. Over the course of that year, Wasson ended up adopting 31 more disadvantaged children and the program grew from there. NPH is now a multinational humanitarian organization, which has provided homes for thousands of children.
UNC has sent dental students to the NPH home in Miacatlán since 1987. These students provide dental care and education to hundreds of the children that live and study in the home. The project itself is three weeks long and takes place each summer around August. This year five students attended, as well as Carolina Vera Resendiz, DDS, Clinical Assistant Professor in the UNC School of Dentistry’s Department of Prosthodontics and an advisor for the Project.
The students assist the community’s only local dentist Leticia Gomez, DDS, with fillings, sealants and cleanings for the kids as well as dental education. Braxton says one of her favorite parts of the trip was teaching some of the younger kids about oral hygiene.
“We were showing them how to floss; they were only 3 so it was hard for them to wrap the string around their fingers,” says Braxton. “But they were just so interactive in wanting to participate, and that connection you make with the kids—it’s so gratifying.”
All the dental students have clinical experience, but for many of them the trip provided a bigger exposure to dental pediatrics. This can bring with it certain challenges. “Sometimes you have to be a bit more persuasive,” says Sarah Park, another student who went on the trip.
Park had a moderate amount of Spanish training going into the trip, which she says was helpful. But fortunately there were also bilingual volunteers on hand to help translate for the students without a strong Spanish background.
In addition to the two weeks of living and working at NPH, the students had a “culture week,” where they were able to explore Mexico City, tour the Chapultepec Castle and expand their palates with food like toasted grasshopper. They were also shown around the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s state-of-the-art dental facilities. There, they had the opportunity to hear from dentists working in the region and get a broader perspective on how dental care is provided in a country with such a wide spectrum of healthcare access.
Park says her experience in Mexico certainly impacted how she thinks about practicing dentistry. “When you’re a provider you have the power to improve someone’s health and educate them and help them help themselves. [The trip] was a good reminder of that,” she says. Park’s experience also solidified her commitment to humanitarian outreach, and she wants to stay involved in the Project going forward.
Braxton says she thought the impact of the trip really hit home during the meals with the kids. “They really warm your heart and remind you why you’re in the field,” she says. Braxton also hopes to stay involved with UNC Mexico Project in the future.
“And who knows, maybe one day down the road one of my patients will go on the UNC Mexico Project service trip!” she says.