July 26, 2005

Students bring dental care to Mexican villagers

by Tom Woolf

samantha jones

Caption follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Poor villagers in a remote area of Mexico were the beneficiaries this summer of the compassion and talents of a group of dental hygiene students and their instructor from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

For the students, this was a lesson in another culture and a clinical experience under adverse conditions. But, the gratitude they received in return for not only their service but their compassion left the students "speechless."

For the third consecutive summer, Sherri M. Lukes, an assistant professor in the dental hygiene program, led a group of nine seniors to rural Mexico to provide basic dental care to children and adults in three villages. The trips are an outgrowth of mission work in the same vicinity conducted by Sherri and husband, Brian's, church, the First Baptist Church of Cobden. The couple also works with migrant farm workers in the Cobden area.

Shannon Bittle, a registered dental hygienist in Southern Illinois, and Sandra Miranda of Elgin, a bilingual 2001 graduate of the dental hygiene program, part of the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, accompanied the group.

This was no ordinary field trip. The students, who receive course credit for the trip, paid all their own expenses for the trip in early June (June 4-11). The team flew into McAllen, Texas, then traveled by van for eight hours to El Coyote, a small village in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which Lukes described as "in the middle of nowhere and very poor." A pastor and his family, who also are hosting a newly trained missionary dentist, hosted the SIUC team.

Lukes and her students worked in three different villages over three days, providing free cleanings to 87 children and teen-agers and 47 adults. The team placed more than 230 dental sealants.

The conditions the team worked in were harsh – extreme heat, no electricity, no running water. They brought their own portable equipment. And, as Lukes noted, most of the villagers have had very little dental care, and most of the adults have lots of problems.

"It made you feel very grateful for what you have," Monicah L. Ladd, a senior from Gurnee, said. "They have nothing. It was a whole different form of poverty than I've ever seen."

Lukes called her students "the cream of the crop."

"They all had sweat just pouring off of them, but they kept seeing patients as long as they would come," she said. "There was no complaining."

Janelle D. Meyers, a senior from Roselle, said the trip left her "speechless."

"It was a good experience clinically, spiritually and emotionally," she said. "We experienced another culture, and we had to come out of our comfort zone. They were very welcoming to us."

Anticipating the extreme poverty they would encounter, Meyers brought $200 worth of toys, clothing and personal items to distribute to the villagers.

The treatments were painful at times, but the villagers endured, because they were so grateful for dental care that they rarely, if ever, have access to.

"When we decided last January to make this trip, we didn't know what to expect," said Kristen N. Robinson, a senior from Bowling Green, Mo. "We certainly didn't expect such extreme conditions. And we probably won't see patients like these again. But they were so patient with us. And they helped my awareness of different cultures."

Robinson said she forgot she was earning academic credit for her efforts because the experience was so overwhelming.

"It was a life-changing experience," she said. "It left me speechless. It was like they were helping us."

Samantha N. Jones, a senior from Marion, echoed similar sentiments.

"I thought I would be able to help them, but they helped me more than I could ever help them," she said of the villagers. "It was so touching. They would give us hugs for helping them."

Heather M. Filippini, a senior from La Salle, also was struck by the poverty, the need and the gratitude the group encountered.

"You won't see what we saw in Mexico around here," she said. "The people who live there just want your help. You try your best and they'll thank you."

Also making the trip were Victoria A. Freeman, Jefferson City, Mo.; Lori B. Danner, Mount Vernon; Jamie M. Hill, Bement; and Kendra F. Monroe, Mount Prospect.

Serving others is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

(Caption: CLEANING AWAY – Samantha N. Jones of MARION, a senior in Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s dental hygiene program, cleans the teeth of a young boy in El Coyote, Mexico, in early June. Jones and eight other SIUC dental hygiene students spent a week in Mexico helping residents with their dental needs. This is the third year dental hygiene students have traveled to Mexico.)

—Photo provided