Benefits for Belize: Vacation time spent helping less-fortunate

Belize children learn the proper way to brush their teeth as part of the fluoride program sponsored by the Belize Mission Project.

A vacation can mean rest and relaxation for some, but for Andi and Bill Grantham, the opportunity to help others is vacation enough.

The Granthams recently returned to Green Valley after spending nearly 10 days in November in Belize, a country on the northeastern coast of Central America. There they volunteered with the Belize Mission Project — a group dedicated to providing free dental and medical care to the poor of the country.

The out-of-pocket cost to the couple, with airfare, amounted to about $2,000 each. The cost included accommodations provided by a dentist from Kansas who settled many years ago in Ambergris Caye, the largest island in Belize.

“We were prepared to spend this amount to be part of this project,” Andi said. “We knew that we were going to be helping less-fortunate people with medical and dental needs that do not have access to health care.”

Although the mission is not affiliated with any particular denomination or church, the project is Christian-based, according to its website, and participants may join in the daily morning devotion.

The group, which travels to Belize at least one week a year, typically consists of approximately 40 dentists, physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, dental hygienists and assistants, nurses, dental technicians, general helpers and everyone in between. Many bring their own medical supplies, often amounting to thousands of dollars in value.

Andi and Bill are no strangers to the mission. This is Andi’s third visit to the country and Bill’s second.

Bill, a supply chain manager for Otis Elevator, said he became involved because of “Andi’s enthusiasm for the mission and to carry the luggage.”

The project began in 1993 and was originally known as “The Fishin’ Mission.” Dr. Frank Whipps, a practicing orthodontist at that time from Centralia, Ill., was one of the founding members.

“He and a group originally went to Belize to fish, but eventually turned the trip into a fishing mission with dental and medical care for those who needed it,” Andi said. “Now, nearly 20 years later, the mission is shared by many medical professionals who go to help.”

Andi is a histotechnician (preparing human tissue for examination) and a senior research specialist in the department of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine. She first became involved with the mission project after responding to a call for assistance from Whipps to the National Society for Histotechnology, of which she is a member.

Andi said the first year she traveled to remote areas of the country and to a Mayan village near Corozal where the people suffered from a variety of skin conditions.

“We eventually set up a clinic in Belize City where people with AIDS were already sent and we became aware that most of our patients had no access to a doctor,” Andi said. “We saw eczema and other conditions. The second year, I also worked with a dermatologist and some of the conditions were more severe, some caused by parasites and others we dealt with were skin cancers.”

On the most recent trip, Andi said that no dermatologist was available to go this year, so her volunteer duties changed.

“It was fun and it gave me the opportunity to learn something new,” Andi said.

The group set up dental clinics in schools or church halls, wherever they could accommodate a large crowd, with equipment and medications provided by the visiting dentists at their own expense. They also distribute flyers to the locals, letting them know the doctors have arrived and where the clinics will be set up.

The doctors and the volunteer assistants travel by small planes to the local villages to set up the clinics, packing their dental tools and other equipment for the trip.

“The power for the drills and the suction and the air was driven by scuba tanks, and patients sat in portable chairs,” Andi said. “It made me realize how spoiled we are. Even in a room full of other children, some crying because this is their first dental experience, most all the patients were just so grateful.”

Andi said one dentist would do all the extractions, another would fill teeth and yet another would work on other dental procedures.

All ages are invited to the clinics, where they not only saw the dentists, but also audiologists and other medical doctors.

Andi said the medical teams get no financial help from the Belize government and estimated that about 10,000 people were seen in the clinics the two weeks she and Bill volunteered there.

Bill assisted a dentist with the fluoride program, educating school kids in Corozal in the northern part of Belize about the benefits of fluoride.

“They grow, harvest and eat sugar cane, so you can imagine what the kid’s teeth are like,” Bill said. “We helped teach the kids, especially the pre-schoolers, the correct way to brush their teeth. Most have never owned a toothbrush, but they sure got to take one home after the lesson.

“When I first signed up for this I thought that it would be a great adventure, but now I am so taken with the people that I just want to help,” Bill said. “I wanted to help wherever they could use me and this was certainly a rewarding job for me.”

“I wanted to also see the country and be of help to the people who don’t have the opportunities that we have here,” Andi added. “A common goal of many of the participants is to professionally and spiritually give to those less fortunate and in need.”

The Granthams have made friends while volunteering. One dentist from Kansas, Rick Hammel and his wife, Nancy, have family living at La Posada.

“We have plans to get together when they visit,” Andi said. “It was a great coincidence.”

The volunteers also collect money through their churches or their local civic groups to purchase rice, beans and produce for the locals in Belize.

“We bag these things up and on the last day we are there, we gather the bags up, load up golf carts and distribute this food,” Andi said. “These people are extremely poor and their living standards are way below the poverty level that we can imagine.”

The Granthams, both Rotarians with the Madera Sunset Rotary Club of Sahuarita, also donated 96 student dictionaries on behalf of their club to one of the schools in Belize. Madera Sunset also donated money for a braille machine and other school supplies for a sight-impaired Belize child.

Andi will soon be traveling to Peru to set up a histology lab with other medical personnel.

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