Jennifer Kendall has long dreamed of using her professional skills for a higher purpose. A certified dental hygienist, last October she realized her dream when she signed up for a dental mission trip with retired Paonia dentist Tom Hanel and wife Andrea. Traveling with the nonprofit Time & Talents for Children, they spent five days providing basic dental care and education to impoverished children in Guatemala.
For Jenni, a wife, mother of two grown children and owner of Brilliant Smiles Dental Hygiene in Paonia, Guatemala is the farthest from home she's ever traveled, and the furthest she's ever been from her comfort zone. "It was exciting to not know what was coming next," she said. She vowed not to complain, and when conditions were hot and the work exhausting, she kept on smiling.
Tom and Andrea Hanel grew up in Wisconsin. He earned his degree in dental surgery from Marquette University in 1974, and in 1979 they bought a dental practice and moved to Paonia. Four years ago they sold the practice and retired. With their kids grown and no business to run, for the first time in their lives they had time on their hands.
Tom learned about Time & Talents through a former classmate in Wisconsin, who was looking for donations of dental tools. When they met again at an eighth grade class reunion, she and her husband invited him on a trip. At first he declined, but in talking it over, Andi wanted to go. In 2015 she traveled with Paonia Friends Church to Mexico on a humanitarian trip. They built a house for a family fleeing the violence of the Mexican drug wars. "That was amazing," she said. "In four days they built a house."
Since trips depart from Chicago, they also could use the trip to visit their daughter and twin grandsons in Wisconsin.
In 2016 the Hanels went with Time & Talents to Honduras. When they got home they told Jenni, who worked as a hygienist in Tom's office for about eight years, about the experience. She promised herself she would go if they took another trip.
From Chicago they flew to Guatemala City via Panama City, then rode to Panajachel, "Pana," for short, where they met a group of Texas doctors with Time & Talents. Pana is located on Lake Atitlan, created when water filled a volcano after it went extinct some 85,000 years ago. The locals said that because the water is very acidic, there are no fish in the lake, said Andi. A distant volcano visible from Pana belched smoke and ash daily.
The ancient Mayan culture is visible everywhere, said Andi. Even the modern-day Maya people are very small like their ancestors. From Pana they traveled about 45 minutes by van to the remote mountain town of Panimatzal, where they set up a makeshift dental facility in a large one-room community building.
Rather than work in cities where there is access to health care, Time & Talents sends teams to isolated areas where care is needed the most, said Tom. The Texas contingency said that for this reason, they prefer this organization over others. Tom agrees. By traveling outside of the city, he said, "We feel like we really did some good."
It took a year to collect all of the items they needed. And they needed a lot. "You forget that you need 12 things to do one filling," said Tom. Once they learned the items were for humanitarian purposes, dentists and dental manufacturing companies were very generous. Dr. Falan Waisath, the dentist who bought Tom's practice, helped tremendously, said Tom.
The only equipment they had was what they could carry on the plane. Because Copa Airlines allows two bags of up to 50 pounds, plus carry-on, they packed their personal belongings in carry-ons and filled suitcases with instruments. Jennifer packed a mobile dental unit weighing almost 50 pounds.
Conditions were very different from what they were used to back home. A generator they hauled with them supplied power. The facility lacked dental chairs, which meant a lot of uncomfortable stooping and bending. "You just made do," said Tom, who spent the first three days working in a stadium chair, using the beverage holder to keep track of instruments. They eventually brought in swivel chairs with wheels, which helped. Andi, who worked as Tom's assistant, suffered the most. On day four, her back gave out.
A head cold Tom caught just before their flight stayed with him all week. "I was living on Nyquil and Dayquil," he said.
Because Spanish is the language of Guatemala, but there are many variations of dialect, they were provided an interpreter.
Despite the challenges and limited resources, over five days the team extracted 275 baby teeth and 138 adult teeth, filled more than 100 cavities, and performed 34 cleanings and 71 fluoride treatments. On one day alone they saw 130 patients. To determine individual needs, patients received a physical and dental checkup -- with no X-ray equipment they basically shined a flashlight in their mouths, said Tom.
The care they were able to provide was more than they were able to do the previous year, said Tom. Without a mobile dental unit and anesthetics, they pulled a lot of teeth. "Sometimes that's all you can do," said Tom. This year, they were able to provide fillings, thanks in large part to access to anesthetics, and save a lot of permanent teeth.
While doing a physical they discovered one little boy had a severely deformed foot that required corrective surgery. One of the doctors referred him to a hospital, and he had his surgery in December.
As word of the clinic spread, more families began arriving. After treating the children, volunteers had time to see their parents. Guatemalans drink a lot of Coca Cola, and as a result, "Decay is rampant," said Tom. One woman required 10 fillings, which he said he was grateful he could provide.
Another woman brought her 19-year-old daughter, a tiny girl with severe disabilities. She also had painful dental problems, but without a proper facility, "We were just out of our league with her," said Tom. "There's no way we could do it."
The girl was referred to a facility in Guatemala City, and the people of the community raised enough money to pay for her trip and her care.
While conditions were tough, Time & Talents provided comfortable and safe accommodations. Each day began with an early breakfast. Teams then loaded up the vans and headed for the mountains on primitive dirt roads. The last 20 minutes of the drive were the roughest. After their arrival in Pana, a flash flood from a "horrendous" rain storm blocked the main road to the clinic. The detour added a bumpy 40 minutes to the drive. The next day the main road was open and a man and young boy were clearing the debris with shovels.
Poverty is rampant in the area, and many residents eke out a living making traditional arts and crafts to sell to tourists. It was important for them to support the local artists, said Andi. Among her souvenirs is a wool table runner on which a local woman worked 20 hours to weave for her.
"They're hard-working people," said Andi. Farming is all done by hand, much of it in the tradition of companion plantings of beans, corn and squash. They also grow banana trees and large gardens that create a patchwork of color of the mountainside landscapes.
Team members also packed baby clothes and quilts and other items in their suitcases to give to families with children. Teenaged kids of the Texas doctors brought nail polish for the girls, and provided crafts for the local children while they waited for treatment. One teenage boy, also a Boy Scout, packed 501 pairs of shoes to give to the locals for his Eagle Scout project.
"They were thrilled," said Jennifer. One young boy picked out a pair of red Air Jordan high tops that were far too big. He refused to let them go, even while getting a tooth filled. "He was crying, but he would not let go."
In a nearby community a Time & Talents construction crew built a playground and climbing wall at the local school, using tools they packed in their suitcases. The mayor of the town threw an elaborate celebration. While some of their group went, the Paonia contingency stayed behind to work.
"We wanted to go and they would have let us go," said Jenni. "But we had so many kids we needed to finish with." One of the photos their teammates brought back from the party was of the little boy with the red high tops. "He was lifting the cuffs of his pants to show everyone his new shoes," she said. In looking back, she said, she had no regrets about missing the party.
Like the Hanels, she said the experiences have made her a more humble and grateful person and have helped her put her own life's goals into perspective. "It was life-changing," she said. She's already planning for her next trip.
The most amazing part of the trip, she said, is that despite having almost nothing, the people they met and helped were so grateful. "It was so rewarding because they were so happy. They were so thankful for anything that you did," she said. And while the interpreter was always nearby, "You didn't have to be able to speak their language to get them to smile."