The year 2001 marks the 20th anniversary of the Dominican Dental Mission Project (DDMP). Begun in 1982 as an individual effort by Dr. Francis G. Serio and continued under his direction, the DDMP has developed to the point where teams of 30-35 dentists from around the country and dental students from the University of Mississippi, University of Maryland, and Medical University of South Carolina volunteer their time each summer to provide a variety of dental services not otherwise available to the rural poor of the Dominican Republic. Over the years, these teams totaling 300 persons have provided in excess of US$6.5 million in dental care to approximately 43,000 individuals. After his first trip, Dr. Serio felt that in the face of the great need his efforts were but a grain of sand on the beach. Looking back, it is apparent that the DDMP has become the beach.
The DDMP is headquartered in the town of San Jose de Ocoa in the south central mountains of the Dominican Republic. The dental teams work closely with nuns belonging to the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph and Fr. Luis Quinn of the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society. The dental teams coordinate their activities with the local development association, Asociation Para El Desarollo de San Jose de Ocoa. In addition to serving the area around Ocoa, smaller dental teams serve the towns of Hondo Valle and El Cercado near the Haitian border.
There are several features that set the DDMP apart from many other dental mission efforts. Dental caries (decay) and periodontal (gum) disease are the two most widespread diseases worldwide. Dental infections are often painful and occasionally may be life-threatening. While many projects focus only on the provision of extraction services to combat these diseases, the DDMP provides extractions, both composite (tooth-colored) and amalgam (silver) fillings, preventive services including the distribution of toothbrushes and floss along with oral hygiene instructions, and the fabrication of removal appliances (partial plates) to replace missing upper front teeth. As it is often difficult if not impossible for many of the campesinos (country people)to get to town, the DDMP is completely mobile. The team heads to a different mountain village each day, converting a school room, rural clinic, or church into a dental clinic in about 45 minutes.
Each day’s activities are truly a group effort between the American volunteers and Dominican volunteers. Both groups are essential to the success of the project. While the American volunteers provide the bulk of the dentists and the equipment and supplies,, the Dominicans are responsible for transportation to and from each village, notifying each village of its appointed day, crowd control, and providing assistants for the dentists. Over the years, eight young Dominicans who started as assistants have become interested in dentistry and have received their dental training at the Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo. These Dominican dentists and students then return each summer to provide care to their fellow citizens as well.
The DDMP developed through an evolutionary process, at times with unpredictable consequences. The project grew and developed as more people became interested and more needs were identified. Several volunteers have either developed projects of their own or participated in other projects as a result of their contributions to the DDMP. DDMP volunteers have worked in countries including Jamaica, Belize, Vietnam, Cambodia, Venezuela, Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador and Haiti. Three marriages and one engagement are a direct result of the project.
Perhaps the most unexpected consequence is the effect the project has had on the Dominican people themselves. As mentioned, several Dominicans have become dentists as a direct result of their participation in the project. The most profound effect comes from Los Olvidados, the “Forgotten Ones,” who live literally at the end of the road in Hondo Valle. In their Christmas letter from the mission one year, it was stated that because the dentists return every year, these people know that God has not forgotten them. Giving people hope is perhaps the greatest power we have as human beings.
The DDMP is conducted under the auspices of the Catholic Medical Mission Board of New York, Inc. Funding is obtained from a variety of private sources including corporations, churches, and interested individuals. Dental manufacturers and suppliers have been very generous in providing donations of equipment and supplies. Through the generosity of its many benefactors, the DDMP has also been able to support many of the educational and humanitarian efforts in which the missionaries are involved.