KENNEWICK, Wash. — Bart Roach had a moment of disbelief on his last trip to Guatemala.
The owner of Three Rivers Dental in Kennewick had once again brought a team of fellow dentists and volunteers to operate a temporary clinic in the small coastal village of El Paredon.
He expected that, like always, the group would put in long days extracting rotten teeth, filling cavities and cleaning away months and even years of neglect.
But, when patients started filling the chairs, “it was perfect teeth after perfect teeth,” Roach recalled.
He and the crew were treating children on that trip, and “after the second day, I said to the (town’s) teacher, ‘What’s going on here? I can’t believe this,’ ” Roach said.
It turned out, Roach’s message about proper dental hygiene — the one he’d been emphasizing since his first mission to El Paredon more than a year before — had gotten through.
“The teacher said, ‘Ever since you came the first time and brought all those toothbrushes, we’ve made the kids brush their teeth every day at school,’ ” Roach said. “That was so cool.”
That trip, in May, was Roach’s fourth to El Paredon, a community of about 1,300 people on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala.
During his visits to the town, Roach brings toothbrushes and hammers home the importance of brushing, all the while treating as many patients as possible.
His hope from the start was that he’d eventually see less of El Paredon — that the community’s dental health would improve to the point where he could start helping out in other spots as well.
With that May trip, and all those healthy mouths, that’s finally happening.
Roach has another dental mission to Guatemala planned in February, and this time he’s heading to a community near Lake Atitlán, in Guatemala’s highlands.
“It’s fun when you get done with a long, hard day and can say, ‘We just did 143 fillings and extracted 57 teeth.’ You feel like you accomplished something,” Roach said. But, seeing community-level change and improvement — that’s particularly special, he said.
He first visited El Paredon in January 2016, making a scouting trip and handing out toothbrushes.
He returned a few months later with four dentist friends, two dental assistants and other volunteers.
That November, Roach was back again, this time with a crew of about 12 volunteers. During that trip, reporters from the Tri-City Herald and Northwest Public Television tagged along, documenting the work.
The need was staggering and obvious. El Paredon is a beautiful place — colorful and vibrant. But it also lacks critical resources.
The town has no doctor or dentist. Limited access to clean water and diets high in sugar make dental issues a particular problem.
During the November trip, volunteers dealt with badly decayed teeth. With rotted teeth. With painful infections.
“When we get in there, it looks like people maybe haven’t brushed their teeth in 10, 15 years. There’s a lot of inflammation, a lot of buildup,” dental hygienist Katie Rodgers told the Herald during that visit. “They’re tough people, but I don’t know how they deal with the pain sometimes.”
Roach’s connection to Guatemala runs deep.
The 33-year-old, who grew up in Pasco, first visited the Central American country more than a decade ago, after finishing his undergraduate studies.
He’d gone with the intention of volunteering, but quickly realized he had few skills to offer. He spent a few months working in a hostel instead, vowing to return when he could do more to help.
He made a separate promise while taking the dental school admission exam: If he got in, he’d dedicate part of his life to the poor.
Those two pledges have dovetailed in Roach’s work in Guatemala.
He started the nonprofit Sonrisa Immaculata to raise money for dental equipment to be used there. The name means “immaculate smile” in Spanish.
Although he’ll visit the Lake Atitlán area in February, Roach does plan to return to El Paredon. His idea is to rotate locations.
He also hopes other dentists will step up to lead trips.
That seems likely, as several dentist friends have made multiple visits to Guatemala with him, including Dr. Nate Green, who helped out in November 2016 and again last May.
Dr. Floris Hartman also volunteered in November and plans to make the trip to the highlands in February.
Roach doesn’t limit his personal volunteer work to overseas. He also helps out at Grace Clinic, the Tri-Cities’ only free clinic for the uninsured.
For him, Guatemala is a special place. He’s made great friends there. And he made those promises — to return and be useful, to help those in need.
“I keep going, keep doing this, because if you don’t have consistency, you’re just a bunch of hot air,” Roach said.
And, “It’s fun,” he said. “I enjoy it.”
To donate to Sonrisa Immaculata, go to sonrisaimmaculata.org. The money raised doesn’t go to travel or overhead, but to dental equipment.
Information from: Tri-City Herald, http://www.tri-cityherald.com