Students Generate Smiles in Latin America by Jennifer A. Cline. Photos by Noel N. Hoffman
As Karen J. Miller prepares to photograph a child for his medical records, she encounters sobs of fright. It’s been a day filled with anxiety for a group of elementary school children, encountering young women who do not speak their language, who are wearing goggles and masks, and who approach them with unfamiliar instruments.
Miller and five classmates – all pursuing bachelor’s degrees in dental hygiene: health policy and administration – traveled roughly 2,000 miles from Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport to provide dental care and education to the 105 students attending La Escuelita – The Little School – in Managua, Nicaragua.
The school is in the heart of the nation’s capital, in the Santo Domingo barrio that was once Managua’s downtown. In 1972, a massive earthquake left 90 percent of the city in shambles, and the formerly wealthy neighborhood of Santo Domingo was abandoned and declared uninhabitable.
Residents and businesses rebuilt on the outskirts of the city.
Life in Santo Domingo continued, though, as poor people from the countryside and other parts of Managua took up residence in the badly damaged buildings that remained, seeking work and survival.
They are some of the poorest in a nation that is ranked second only to Haiti among the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries. Children in Nicaragua have access to free education, but in order to attend, parents must buy their children’s uniforms and school supplies. For many – those who struggle just to provide food for their families – the expense is far beyond their means.
La Escuelita opened in 1996 to offer such children an elementary-school education. The three-room school, recognized by the Nicaraguan government since 1999, does not require uniforms and provides the students’ school supplies and books, as well as daily lunch.
Penn College dental hygiene students have been visiting the school during the college’s Spring Break since 2008. They work alongside dentists Alicia Reyes, of Nicaragua, and Martin Shelley, of Canada, to provide complete dental care to the children. For most, it is the first dental exam in their lives.
"In a country where dental care is often not provided, the project is unusual and important," school officials say.
The Penn College students spent the first day of their visit in lectures, learning about the area’s culture, history and politics. On their second day they set up a health fair, each student leading a center with hands-on learning activities to educate the children and their families. Over the next four days, the students set to work cleaning the children’s teeth, applying sealants and varnishes, teaching them how to brush and floss, and analyzing whether they needed restorative work by the dentists.
"The language barrier was difficult," said Billie Jo L. Anderson, of Falls Creek, adding that it made it difficult to ease the children’s anxiety. "The ones who had been there prior years handled it very well."
However, Santo Domingo is home to many transient families, so the school experiences frequent turnover in pupils, said Rhonda J. Seebold, part-time instructor of dental hygiene, who accompanied the students on the trip.
The Penn College students carried on, though, despite frequent power outages, stifling heat and cramped space that led them to take turns working in the school’s hot, sun-drenched courtyard. But the rewards were so plentiful, the dental hygiene students are eager for an opportunity to return.
"They gave us a hug when we came in and a hug when we left," Anderson said, remarking at how much appreciation the children showed to their visitors – when not in the intimidating dentist’s chair.
"They were super excited to just sit and read with me," Miller, of Linden, recalled. According to school officials, many of the children are hyperactive, mistreated, malnourished, and in some cases are ignored by their parents.
"They really don’t have anything," Miller said. Each child was given a toothbrush to take with them, and the gesture delighted them. "It was like light was beaming out of every pore."
"Something so miniscule," added Noel N. Hoffman, of Shillington. "We would never even think of it here."
Joining Anderson, Hoffman and Miller on the trip were students Amanda "Gracie" McCoy, of Williamsport, and Tango S. Marbaker, of Canton. The trip is part of a two-credit elective course, Dental Hygiene Nicaragua Experience.
In addition to more traditional full-semester study abroad opportunities, Penn College offers many options for short-term study abroad experiences through its International Programs Office.
Penn College dental hygiene student Karen J. Miller, of Linden, teaches a child good toothbrush technique.
The Penn College dental hygiene students join tour guides atop a volcanic mountain during their stay in Nicaragua.
A young client. For many of the children, the experience marked their first dental exam.
The family of a La Escuelita teacher shows off new toothbrushes.
Penn College dental hygiene students Billie Jo L. Anderson and Karen J. Miller take a break between patients at the school in Nicaragua.
The Penn College contingent takes a boat tour of Grenada. From left: Noel N. Hoffman; Rhonda J. Seebold, part-time instructor of dental hygiene; Billie Jo L. Anderson; Karen J. Miller; Amanda "Gracie" McCoy; and Tango S. Marbaker.
Penn College dental hygiene student Billie Jo L. Anderson engages children in a fluoride experiment during a health fair for the schoolchildren and their families.
Penn College dental hygiene student Amanda "Gracie" McCoy, in solid green T-shirt, staffs an educational station on tooth decay during the health fair.
Penn College dental hygiene students Tango S. Maraker, left, and Karen J. Miller treat one of 105 elementary school students at La Escuelita in Managua, Nicaragua.