In 1988, Dr. Jess Kane, Dr. David Tesini and I formed a dental outreach program to provide preventive dental care to children in need. Project Stretch, Dentistry Reaching Out to Children has been fortunate to be involved in bringing dental healthcare to children in Massachusetts, other areas in the United States and other countries over these past 29 years. The mission of Project Stretch is to not only treat the acute needs of the children we see, but to provide dental health education, fluoride rinse programs and the tools communities need to sustain these goals. We strive to get local volunteers involved, which helps instill a sense of ownership and continuity.
For the past 13 years, I have been participating in a Project Stretch program in Teacapan, Mexico, a small fishing village on the Pacific coast. The year before our first trip, a Canadian who spent his winters in Teacapan came to Massachusetts to request that Project Stretch send volunteers to his village. The town had no dentist for a population of about 5000 and he was concerned that the 2500 children were having significant dental problems. The first year we sent a “scout” team of two dentists, a dental assistant and a dental hygienist to evaluate the location and decide if a dental program would be viable. We examined about 1500 kids and provided toothbrushes, oral hygiene instruction and fluoride treatments to them all. The exams were carried out in the schools we visited, using a classroom set aside for our use. We also worked with high school students to teach them to become dental health educators, so they could teach the younger children about prevention of dental disease. Our American and Canadian hosts provided housing for the week and we were invited share meals with them during our stay. We quickly determined that Teacapan was a perfect location for a Project Stretch program and made plans to return the following year.
Within a few years we were able to install two dental chairs and other equipment in a space donated by “Amigos de Teacapan,” a group of North American and Mexican volunteers interested in improving the lives of their neighbors. Project Stretch ran golf tournaments, yard sales and other events to raise money for the trips to the town and dental supply companies generously donated supplies for us to take with us. Each team member brings a suitcase with their clothing and another with dental supplies, toothbrushes, toothpaste and other dental items.
At the same time our clinic was being established, an American couple who spend the winter in Teacapan became motivated to support a child from a nearby community who might otherwise not be able to continue in school. They went to the local principal and asked him to identify a promising student whose family circumstances would have required him to leave school and go to work in the chili fields. A boy was chosen and this couple paid for his education through high school, with the stipulation that he maintain a B+ average or better. The student then decided that he would like to become a dentist, so they paid his tuitition to college and dental school as well! Dr. Luis is now starting a dental practice in his hometown, as well as helping with Project Stretch in Teacapan. He treats patients with us when our teams are there and sees patients at the clinic on other days to keep dental services available throughout the year. It is rewarding to think that our outreach program has reached so many lives in a positive way and plan to continue our commitment to Project Stretch.
By Dr. John Ficarelli