Hygienist shares a smile with remote Communities

Julie Chadwick  / Nanaimo Daily News   January 4, 2014 09:59PM

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Heather Cooper, a dental hygienist in Nanaimo, was volunteering in Ecuador when she decided to establish an organization that provided dental care in remote areas on Vancouver Island.  Photograph by:  Aaron Hinks, Nanaimo Daily NewsNANAIMO — The idea of delivering quality dental care for free to remote communities in B.C. first occurred to hygienist Heather Cooper during a trip to Ecuador.

She was travelling with Kindness in Action, a registered charity based in Alberta, and during the trip Cooper, who works at Harbour City Dental, realized that many of the people being helped in Ecuador had poor diet, lack of dental education and lack of access to dental care.

These are the kinds of problems people experience in B.C. communities, thought Cooper, particularly in lower-income populations and in remote areas.

“I kind of scratched my head and wondered why I was travelling all that way when I could help people in my own country,” Cooper said.

“I decided, coming back, that I would start checking out things here on Vancouver Island to see if there was a need.”

Part of the problem, Cooper found, was that people in remote areas faced multiple obstacles in getting dental work because of the time and expense involved in leaving their communities to access care.

Cooper created an organization called Share A Smile and initiated a pilot project that took her into the Nootka Sound region in the summer of 2011.

“Sure enough, it was widely received, like, ‘Yes, please, come here. We haven’t had dentistry in a long time,’ ” Cooper said.

A group including Cooper, two dentists and a dental hygiene student travelled back to the region in October, visiting the communities of Tahsis, Esperanza and Zeballos, and began to establish a relationship with the residents. It became clear their services were needed, Cooper said.

“One fellow said that he hadn’t been to the dentist since he was 18 years old and he was 52,” she said. “It was simply because he didn’t get out to see the dentist.

“You know, people work for a living, and it’s a full day off, maybe two sometimes, to travel out to Campbell River and stay overnight and go back again.”

For Cooper, the reason for establishing the organization can be found in her desire to give back.

“You always get so much more back than what you give. The people really are appreciative. Some of the comments and letters we get back — that’s the reason why we do it. I really have a passion for it,” she said.

Some of the dentists who volunteer are at the end of their working lives and seeking a meaningful way to spend their retirement, Cooper said.

Others, who perhaps can’t donate their time or skills, often donate money and equipment to the cause, or help host fundraisers.

Typically, volunteers pay their own travel expenses. However, when the group decided to travel to nearby Kyuquot from Esperanza to assess the need there, the local ferry Uchuk III donated the trip.

Share a Smile plans to expand to twice-yearly trips next year, Cooper said, as well as returning to service Kyuquot.

“I know there’s tons of communities on the mainland of British Columbia, like near Bella Coola, that don’t get any service at all,” she said.

Though the overseas trips to Ecuador were fun, Cooper said now that she has a young child, she is focused on what she can do locally.

With the natural beauty and attraction of some of the remote areas, drawing the volunteer work of professionals from elsewhere is also a possibility.

“For me, here, it’s going to be about making that connection year after year. I’ll be meeting people … and seeing them grow up … seeing that we’ve made a difference in the lives of however many people.”

For more information, go to shareasmile.ca.

© Copyright Times Colonist

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