Most people approaching middle age joke about how their midlife crisis might involve a new sports car. For Dr. Hanna Ekstrom, a Woodinville veterinarian, it was a desire to help others.
About eight years ago, she traveled to Nicaragua as a vet volunteering for chicken husbandry for Partners in Health of Maine.
While there, she couldn’t help but notice the village children who tagged along everywhere she went watching her work. What was hard to ignore was that most of the children had rotting teeth and swollen gums.
For three years, she kept traveling back to the remote region in northeast Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast as a vet, but she couldn’t get the image out of her head of those children’s teeth.
So, five years ago she founded Save Their Smiles, a nonprofit whose mission was to bring toothbrushes and a desire to train the local children how to properly care for their teeth.
Ekstrom’s first goal was to reach school children. She developed the "Let’s All Brush at School" program. Children bring their notebook, pencil and toothbrush every day to school where they are taught how to properly brush their teeth and are supervised daily to develop good oral health care habits.
She soon realized, however, that by the time children reached school age, they already were suffering from cavities and rotting teeth.
She then started a program called "From the First Tooth," offered at local health clinics where parents would bring in their babies for their vaccines several times a year. Parents are learning that when that first tooth cuts through, the habit of brushing teeth needs to begin.
Now, she’s working on the goal of training locals to deliver oral health care. In Nicaragua, one can train to be a dental hygienist in six months time.
This program would, combined with the other two programs, meet Save Their Smiles’ goal to deliver care that will be sustainable after their program leaves a village.
In five years, the program has exploded in its outreach. While Dr. Ekstrom is still the only person in the U.S. coordinating the nonprofit, she’s been able to hire nine employees in Nicaragua to help manage the program, maintain the inventory of supplies, and become trained promoters of proper dental hygiene. Those nine employees have reached out and taught almost 8,000 children and their families the benefits of clean teeth in just five years.
She travels to the region with a dentist and dental hygienist who’ve volunteered to help her since founding the nonprofit.
"Volunteers pay their own way for the 10-day trip," she said, adding that it costs about $1,500 to travel.
She would love to have additional dentists and hygienists volunteer to travel once a year so the nonprofit could provide more frequent dental care to the villages served.
Supporting the nonprofit’s mission also takes a lot of supplies.
Currently, they need over 10,000 toothbrushes annually to ensure children’s teeth remain clean, over 80,000 latex gloves for the volunteer dentist, hygienist, and locally trained staff to examine and treat children they see, and teaching supplies like a book specifically written for the children to learn about good oral health.
"It takes $10 to help a child for a full year," said Ekstrom, adding, "One hundred percent of the donations go to helping the kids."
That amount pays for two fluoride treatments and one toothbrush a year.
In the five years since its founding, the nonprofit has increased tooth brushing among children from less than five percent to about 90 percent in the territory she serves.
Recently, Ekstrom has been expanding the program beyond just dental care.
"It’s hard to focus on good teeth cleaning when the child handles the toothbrush with a hand that wasn’t washed after going to the bathroom," she said.
She is working with the Nicaraguan government to get more involved in the region to supply clean drinking water, health care facilities, and a sanitation system to help stem rampant gastrointestinal diseases.
Recently, she was stunned to learn that an anonymous foundation was awarding Save Their Smiles a $10,000 grant in appreciation of the nonprofit’s efforts.
She’s decided to use most of the grant to purchase a boat that will serve as a water ambulance for a remote village of indigenous people downriver from the more populated region she usually serves after visiting that small village this summer.
The remaining amount will be used to print the children’s books she created that teach good oral health care.
"It’s hard to use American books that show hippos inside an American home brushing teeth to children who don’t know what a hippo is or know the concept of how our homes are built when they’re living in simple wooden huts," she said.
Ultimately, Ekstrom’s goal is not to go into the villages and act as a savior.
"I want the villagers and village leaders to be self-empowered to improve their lives," she said. She and Save Their Smiles are doing just that one toothbrush at a time.