Three years ago today the Open Wide Peronia clinic opened its doors and our first volunteer team went to work. Thinking back I realize how much we had to learn. Our very first set of patients were five first graders from the elementary school next door. A logical choice of patients for this momentous day, right? Wrong. Within five minutes all five were crying! They had never seen a dentist before, never entered a dental clinic, never sat in the strange chairs surrounded by strange equipment and people. No wonder! Not the best start but we were in motion regardless!!
The day before was the clinic grand opening. January 21, 2012 – the date and memory is stamped forever in my mind and heart. There were over 600 people in attendance; men, women, children, babies, students, local and national dignitaries, health professionals, U.S. dental industry representatives and Open Wide volunteers. Following the ceremony, a long line of people wound it’s way around the outside of the clinic, patiently waiting their turn to enter the clinic and see what was there. Never before had anything of this magnitude happened in their town.
I ask myself, would I have made any effort to attend a grand opening of a dental clinic in my own community? Would I have been at all interested in waiting in a long line to see the shiny new equipment and meet the dentist and reach high over the pressing crowd to take a picture of a group of dentists standing around a dental chair? Most probably not.
I know what a clinic looks like, I go to the dentist without a thought, I don’t hurt in my mouth and I don’t really think about what that all means. But for these Guatemalans, January 21, 2012, was an unprecedented day, a grand day to remember forever and be proud of. It was a day of hope that something really good could happen in their community. It was an indication to them that they mattered after all.
Before Open Wide came to Peronia, an impoverished city of about 80,000 outside of Guatemala City, the only permanent “dental clinics” were manned by untrained “mechanicos” who routinely pulled teeth for people who could no longer bear the pain of a toothache. Nothing more. No preventive care, hygiene treatments, no fillings, no saving teeth. But bigger than that, there wasn’t enough medical care, enough clean water or street lights, enough safety to walk the streets, enough hope.
So it was no wonder that when Open Wide came to town and worked with the local community and leadership to get the clinic up and running, equipping it with better equipment than anywhere in Guatemala, it was a very big deal. It’s why on Grand Opening Day everyone came. It’s why they waited in line to get a glimpse inside. It’s why, later that year, the First Lady of Guatemala paid a visit. It was a big, big deal.
Three years later the Open Wide Clinic is still important to the people of Peronia. We’ve been told by community leaders that because of us, more good things are happening in Peronia simply by virtue of the fact that Peronia is finally on the map and governmental leaders are putting more resources into the city.
Today, in addition to access to better dentistry, we’re seeing more street lights, cleaner water, increased access to medical care, more support for the elderly, young women, youth and other marginalized portions of the population. Now there’s a bank and a restaurant in town. We’re seeing a new jobs training center going up right next door to the clinic. Very recently, a tiny, family owned restaurant serving patients and OWF volunteers has opened across the road. The Open Wide Clinic, in concert with a local dental university is providing practicum opportunities for new young dentists and training and job opportunities for support staff and clinic administrators. Outside of Peronia, new clinics in unserved rural areas are opening due to the support and equipment donations of Open Wide. And the ripple effect goes on.
On one of my trips to Peronia last year, I mentioned to the Mayor of Villa Nueva/Peronia, Edwin Escobar that the road leading to the clinic was almost impassable. The very next morning when we turned onto the road, trucks filled with new road material were there filling the pot holes, making the road much easier to pass.
As with the dirt road, the road for the people of Peronia is looking a little bit better. For them, the road is still very long and it will always be their work, and their vision that brings the positive changes they seek. But Open Wide has clearly played a part.
On our website we ask the question, “What if dentistry could be a reason to eradicate poverty?”… What if?