Large banana leaves brushed against the bus windows and roof. Bumping along the dirt path, our bus traveled for an hour, with no people in sight.
Distant mountain peaks rose through the clouds. Despite the 90-degree heat, we were ready.
We were 12 volunteers, traveling where no visitors have ever traveled before. To the remote villages, in the poorest areas in Ecuador. Places where children and adults typically receive no health care. In these areas, residents have become blind or died from dental infections. Adults live from meal to meal.
But each of us—American, Ecuadorian and Australian—had a purpose and a commitment to make a difference. That’s why we paid our own way to venture out with Causes For Change International, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides free health care to poor children in Ecuador every summer. This past summer, we came together to do what we could. And in the process, about 1,500 children were given a chance to stay healthy.
This was the second time that my husband, Joel—a Highland Park-based dentist—our son Andrew and I trekked off on this volunteer mission. I admit that it wasn’t easy. Even thinking about it gave me a moment’s pause. How would I deal with the primitive bathrooms? Could I manage for a week without hot water in the shower? What about keeping my energy up for those long days?
It’s easy to focus on the minor inconveniences. But Joel and Andrew were eager to go and wanted me to join them. So how could I refuse? I loved teaching the children different musical songs, dances and games. The entertainment offered a distraction before the dental extractions. There would be no computers, telephones or internet access. Not exactly a relaxing vacation—but I knew it would be rewarding.
We fortified ourselves with protein bars, digestive supplements, packets of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. I sent out emails and gave talks to raise money for the dental supplies. Through the generosity of friends and colleagues, we raised $2,000 to cover dental materials. Since 1996, Causes For Change has touched thousands of children’s lives.
The villages weren’t accustomed to visitors. Children stared. Adults couldn’t believe we intended to give them free health care. We passed out toothbrushes and toothpaste, taught children how to brush (and spit on the ground), and checked every child for dental infections. If teeth were infected, children waited in line for extractions. Psychology was required, because families didn’t realize the repercussions of dental infections.
With no electricity, Joel and Australian dentist Kate Mitchell had volunteers shine flashlights over every mouth. An Ecuadorian doctor gave checkups and volunteers at our pharmacy table provided free vitamins and pain pills. What a whirlwind week! All in all, it was a blessing to give what we could. We left with priceless gifts: an abundance of love, joy and gratitude.