So much poverty, so many smiles

By Melissa Hirschl

Lions and tigers and…kids, oh my! Okay, so maybe they’re not the exact words Dorothy and company uttered while traversing the yellow brick road, but they might have been. If, that is, the gang had tagged along with Kyrene Corridor dentist Dr. Kelly Cook last August during a big-game safari hunt in South Africa.

Taking a 17-day break from drilling and filling, Cook managed to combine the high adventure of a safari with the rare opportunity to do medical outreach for hundreds of impoverished children.

The Chandler dentist, who is largely known for his rock ‘n’ roll-themed practice, was a larger-than-life hero to the nearly 750 students at the Radibaki primary school near Botswana.

The children, who learned about the program from the man who organized and outfitted the vacation, ranged in age from kindergarten to junior high.

With Cook’s expertise, they learned the importance of daily oral hygiene, including brushing and flossing techniques--aspects of dental care so routinely taken for granted.

“They came to understand that we were there to help,” said Cook, “and our lives haven’t been the same since.”

In short, says Cook, the trip was “a life-changing experience.”

“Most of these kids live in homes with no running water, but they were attentive and very eager to learn. I communicated mainly through pantomime and humor, although many of the kids understood English in addition to their native language of Afrikaans.”

The trip, which was a Father’s Day gift for Cook’s dad, was in the planning stages for two years, while Cook investigated various touring companies, before settling on Angus Brown Safaris. Traveling with him were his wife Michelle, his father Warren Cook and friends Todd and Nikki Adamson.

“What really blew me away was how good these kids were,” said Cook. “There were so many smiles. It’s interesting to see how there’s no hierarchy there--no one cares what you have or if you made the football team.

“There’s no jewelry, no cell phones, no designer clothes. In spite of it all, they are still incredibly happy.”

To help finance the excursion, Cook enrolled Oral B to donate around 1,000 toothbrushes for the kids. In addition, the team also brought lots of floss and special “disclosing” tablets that stain teeth red when they’re not brushed properly.

“We nicknamed one kid ‘Turbo,’ laughs Cook, “because he was so vigorous about brushing and getting all his red stains out.”

To further brighten the kids’ faces, Cook brought 500 bright tie-dyed tee shirts (identical to the ones worn by his staff), a novelty for children who are used to dressing in mainly black and white. “They sang songs and danced for us in their new shirts,” said Michelle.

“They wanted to touch us and be near us. They were affectionate, so well behaved, and we were amazed at how genuinely happy they seemed to be.”

“It’s very humbling to go from here to there,” added Cook.

Focal point for the group’s efforts was a block building with wood floors and no running water. They were happy kids though, according to Cook, and extremely appreciative.

“They were pretty quiet in the beginning,” said Cook. “Our group went over every day dispensing the supplies and teaching them how to brush and rinse. The first class was the hardest, but it got better each day. They would come running out to get their brushes, full of excitement and anticipation.”

According to Cook, the children’s oral health was much better than the team members had expected. They were surprised to learn that the kids ate hardly any candy and didn’t consume sugary beverages.

“Their diet consists primarily of vegetables, meat and water. I found hardly any cavities when I did exams. You would think it would be just the opposite.”

The children’s knowledge of American pop culture came as a surprise to Cook as well. The toothbrushes his team handed out were decorated with cartoon characters and action figures such as Cinderella, Monsters Inc., Toy Story and Winnie-the-Pooh.

“We thrust them into the kids’ eager hands, not thinking about the designs,” said Cook.

“Then we noticed the children were trading among themselves, and some brought their toothbrushes to Michelle trade them; the boys weren’t crazy about Cinderella--they wanted Buzz Lightyear.”

Cook says the group is making plans to visit the school again in 2006.