Three years ago, Dr. Bruce Fong, of Rockridge Dental in North Oakland, wanted to have a bonding experience with his oldest son, Trevor. He got that plus a lot more.
"I called the dental society, and they turned me on to Kids International Dental Services (KIDS for short), which provides pro bono dental care to impoverished children in developing countries," he says. "But my original interest wasn't altruistic; I was thinking about bonding with my son. Needless to say, that changed after we arrived in Guatemala."
Working in the poorest villages and slums, where access to even the most basic health care is nonexistent, he was shocked by what he found.
"I did a few fillings, but mostly I did extractions because the decay was so far gone there were abscesses and infections and a lot of pain. Most of the extractions were the four front teeth -- two on the top and two on the bottom." Why?
"Because the people are so poor, they have a hard time affording food or water. But Coke and Pepsi are cheaper than water, so they have plenty of that. The moms put the stuff in the baby bottles, and the babies go to sleep with the bottle in their mouth. It doesn't take long for their front teeth to rot."
One of Trevor's jobs was watching the kids as they waited in line and making sure they didn't run away.
"When we'd get to those villages, the kids would be lined up 200 to 300 kids deep because the mothers know there's a need," says Fong. "But the kids still don't want to go. Sometimes they have to be held down. When you have these teeth extracted, they're not calm. They're screaming, as any 2- or 3-year-old would do. It's very wrenching."
The next year, Trevor's younger brother, Tristan, joined them, and the same kids who were screaming the year before gave them a hero's welcome.
"They were smiling and running up to us and giving us big hugs. It was awesome because they remembered."
By the third year, the improvement in the kids' dental health was remarkable.
"We were doing more restorations, more fluoride treatments, more fillings and fewer extractions. It was really cool."
In addition to Guatemala, KIDS sends teams to Cambodia, Mongolia and the Philippines. The teams are comprised of experienced dentists, young dental professionals and students and nonprofessionals like Trevor and Tristan, who provide support services.
KIDS operates entirely with volunteer labor, and it has zero administrative overhead. Every penny it receives provides care for a child.
If you'd like to help them bring health and smiles to these kids, you can make a tax-deductible donation by going on KIDS' website, www.kidservices.org, or by sending a check to KIDS, 1400 22nd Ave., San Francisco CA 94122. Please write Dr. Fong's name in the subject line.
Oh yeah: How did Trevor and Tristan like the experience?
"They were super-happy to be there," he says. "For them, it wasn't just seeing that part of the world and how great the need was. It was also being exposed to a group of people who were like-minded and intent on helping other people. As they put it, it was great to be part of a group that was 'so nice.' "
Reach Martin Snapp at email@example.com.