It was late evening in "Colonia 89" at the top of the hills east of Ensenada when a young girl was brought to the volunteer dental clinic. The girl had been in an automobile accident the day before and had hit her face on the dash. Her face was bruised and swollen and she was in great pain.
Doctor Charles "Chuck" Tozzer, examined her and noticed that not only were her teeth knocked loose, but her lower jaw had been fractured and and had become infected. Improvising a rudimentary splint out of dental impression material, he stabilized her lower jaw and administered antibiotics to combat the infection. A few years later, a woman approached the team and asked for Dr. Tozzer. It was the same girl. She had recovered, her teeth had been saved and she wanted to invite Chuck to her wedding.
The small dental team of volunteers, organized by Chuck, and using cobbled together equipment transported in personal vehicles, had traveled from Orange County to help Felipe Suarez, a self-taught pastor who was building his own church to serve the residents of "Colonia 89," an area filled with impoverished families from other parts of Mexico who had moved to Baja California looking for work.
Felipe helped feed the local kids. He taught people to read. He preached on Sundays. And he volunteered to help the dental team during its visits to the orphanage in Maneadero. Soon, a dental clinic was arranged at Felipe's church.
I met Chuck almost 40 years ago when we both attended a series of hands-on leadership seminars in the early '80s. He soon became my dentist and he invited me along on his volunteer dental trips to Mexico to work at an orphanage in Maneadero, south of Ensenada. We would work all day Saturday and celebrate with beers and food at a nearby taco stand after finishing. That became a lasting tradition of the clinics and is the motto on the back of the dental smocks that reads "Will Work for Tacos."
Working with Irvine Rotary, Chuck held a local dental clinic at his office once a year. It was while helping at that Irvine Rotary clinic in 2003 I was reconnected to Rotary and I soon joined the Irvine club. It seemed that Rotary and Chuck's volunteering in Mexico might be a great fit. Soon after I joined, I proposed Irvine Rotary sponsor two dental clinics for children in Mexico each year.
Our first job was to establish a relationship with a Rotary club in Ensenada. Looking through Rotary International's directory of clubs, I saw there were five clubs in Ensenada, but only one had both a Secretary and President who were women – a perfect fit for a children's clinic. Chuck and I drove to Ensenada and met with the officers of the Rotary Club of Ensenada Calafia. They loved the concept. Working with the local school system, they would select the primary school most in need. Chuck would bring the dental team comprised of dentists, hygienists, assistants and dental students from USC and Loma Linda. Rotarians would volunteer wherever needed. From painting the school, to new athletic equipment to holding flashlights and suction hoses.
We solved the need for better equipment with Rotary global grants. First for portable dental chairs, then for quality dental equipment sourced from "Rota-Dent" a club project of the Rotary club of Newberg, Oregon. When Dental Care for Children outgrew the old van, another grant helped purchase a much larger van that's still in use today.
In recent years, eye exams and free glasses have been added with the help of Dr. Fred Stellhorn of the Rotary Club of Manteca. Fred has held clinics in Honduras and Mexico to bring better vision to those who can't afford care.
Dental Care for Children is now in it's 32nd year. They've treated more than 30,500 patients in 331 clinics with the help of 2,000 volunteers from Rotary and 10 dental schools to provide more than $13 million in free services. There have been 110 clinics in the U.S., 165 in Mexico (35 of them Rotary), 31 in Haiti and 25 others in various locations. He has inspired spin-off clinics in El Salvador, Guatemala, Egypt and Jamaica.
The next Rotary clinic is March 11th where you'll see the team in action once again.