Member Snap Shots
Originally published in the CDS Review.
Oppenheim family answers the call for help
When the call goes out for help, CDS member Joanne Oppenheim and her family readily answers it.
Dr. Oppenheim’s reaction when her daughter, Jacqueline, called home after being a few weeks into a nine-week internship at a school in Ghana is a perfect example.
Jacqueline told Dr. Oppenheim that the students’ dental health was terrible.
The children had never seen a dentist, did not brush their teeth, knew nothing about dental hygiene and on top of that had a high sugar diet, Jacqueline said. The result is what you would expect; many of the children had poor dental health and were suffering from the consequences. Dr. Oppenheim and her husband, fellow CDS member Ken Kromash, went into action.
“[My daughter] requested we come out there on a mission trip and help these children,” Dr. Oppenheim said. “So, in two weeks, we put together four suitcases of donations, we carried many supplies including toothbrushes, toothpaste, soccer balls and laptop computers and whatever else they needed, and we flew to Ghana.”
The school is run by an American, Bill Owen, a Northwestern University in Evanston graduate who moved to Ghana after visiting and falling in love with a local woman.
The private school, located in the small town of Techiman, is named One World Ayi Owen International School in honor of Owen’s wife and co-founder. Some of the students live at the school because they are orphaned or otherwise have no parental support. The school has elementary as well as high school students.
Once they arrived at the school, Dr. Oppenheim and her husband conducted more than 200 dental exams and arranged to work with a local dentist to treat children who needed extra care.
“These children have never gone to a dentist,” Dr. Oppenheim said. “And they don’t complain about anything, so I would look in their mouths and ask if they wanted to say anything to me. And they would say they only eat on one side of their mouth because the other side hurts, or that they didn’t want me to look at their teeth.”
When Dr. Oppenheim asked why they didn’t want her to look, they said it was because their teeth were “rotten.”
She said because the children never complain they never told anyone of their dental problems. Dr. Oppenheim said she brought silver diamine fluoride to treat the children who had cavities that were not too severe. “In a situation when they may not be getting a filling (because of the cost involved) this makes sure the cavity doesn’t get bigger and they won’t be in any pain,” Dr. Oppenheim said of the procedure. The fact that the children never see a dentist is compounded by the reality that they consume a lot of sugary foods.
“If they have hot chocolate they will add sugar to it,” she said. “They just add sugar to everything.” And they also eat a lot of candy as well as sugary soft drinks.
“At the school when they come in they have a little school store and they can buy a piece of candy, and for all I know that is their breakfast,” Dr. Oppenheim said. “Anything they can get that is sweet, they love.” The children matched their tastes, Dr. Oppenheim said, they all had sweet dispositions.
She said she and her husband only half-joked on the plane ride home that they would adopt five of the children and bring them back to the United States.
“I rearranged my kids rooms in my mind to figure out how to put bunk beds and make it work, but it’s not easy to adopt from Ghana,” she said.
But what they did do is help a young woman who had already graduated from the high school, but stayed because she had no place else to go. The school gave her room and board in return for some work.
However, the woman yearned to continue her education. Heeding yet another call for help, Dr. Oppenheim said her family decided to pay for her to attend a fashion design program in Ghana’s capital, Accra, about a six-hour drive from Techiman. Without that support the woman would have been destitute.
Giving back runs in her family. Her son, Ben, is serving in the Peace Corps in Paraguay. Dr. Oppenheim is planning a visit in February and is checking with the International College of Dentists for any volunteering opportunities while there.
Dr. Oppenheim said she would like to go back to Ghana some day, but notes “there are so many places in the world that need help that, it doesn’t matter where I go, I will be helping other people and that’s my goal.”
And for those who have been thinking of volunteering but never quite get around to it, Dr. Oppenheim has some advice. “Find some mission trip that is going on and do it once, because once you do it, you’ll be hooked,” she said.Joseph DeRosier is the CDS Staff Writer.
Photo courtesy of Joanne Oppenheim.
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