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On a mission

Tyler dental assistant takes skills to Guatemala

Submitted photo Tyler dental assistant Stefanie Slegers holds a 5-year-old Guatemalan girl who wanted to be held while having two of her teeth extracted.

Stefanie Slegers knows all about dental assisting, and after a 2019 mission trip she knows how much it can make a difference in one of the world’s impoverished countries.

Slegers, a dental assistant in Tyler, took part in a week-long mission trip to Guatemala last winter. In that short timespan, she and nine other volunteers provided dental procedures for 97 individuals.

A combination of adults and children were served. A large share of them had never before received professional dental care.

“People lined up each and every day,” Slegers said. “They stood in line hoping that we’d be able to help them. It was an amazing opportunity and a privilege.”

She first heard about the possibility of using her dental training when she worked with Dr. Ed McNiece in Worthington. McNiece had been visiting Guatemala for six years, bringing much-needed dental equipment and also providing patient care.

At the time, Slegers had just started her job at Tyler Dental and McNiece had heard from others who were also interested. She asked to be told when there might be a possibility for taking part in a mission trip.

“I’d gone on a mission trip to Chile back in high school,” Slegers said. “I knew dental care is an urgent need in many countries, so I thought it would be great to apply my skills in a mission setting. When he told me my turn was up, I asked when we’d leave.”

She finalized plans for last winter’s trip after getting wholehearted support from her husband, Kerbie, and Dr. Kristal Wilmes at Tyler Dental.

After arriving in Guatemala, she and the other members of the mission trip traveled to Ciudad Vieja (Spanish for “old city”), which has a population of about 26,000. Their first several days were spent setting up a dental care location and learning about the local community.

In that process they completed a service project for a Guatemalan family who had lost their home in the Fuego volcanic eruption in 2018.

They built a one-room house for the family, which was all that could fit on a 9-by-13 foot plot of land that became a pre-inheritance gift from a grandmother. The closest things to luxuries in the home were two light fixtures and a triple bunk bed.

“We built that for a family of five,” Slegers said. “When I think about their daily situation, I know that my own family of five has nothing to complain about.”

She said additional strong firsthand impressions took shape as part of a tour of volcano damage. The group saw a village that was destroyed by the eruption.

In that location, many homes were filled with ash. Family possessions, including everyday items like blankets, clothing and kitchenware, were left scattered in the rubble.

“The destruction and devastation was horrific,” she said. “The disaster affected so many lives and homes. It left many people with no place to go.”

She added that the eruption site was declared uninhabitable by government officials, but that some residents were still attempting to fix their homes or at least salvage as much as they could.

A total of five full working days were spent serving dental patients. The headquarters was created within a music ministry classroom. It was set up with advice from Dr. Bruce Ahlman, who practices dentistry in Guatemala and who has an affiliation with the charitable group Youth With a Mission.

Of the many patients that she served, the one that stands out most for Slegers is a 5-year-old girl who needed to have two teeth extracted.

“There was no communication barrier,” she said. “Even though we speak different languages I knew she was scared. Both of us and the dentists thought it would help if I held her in my lap while the teeth were removed. We did that and we sang her the song ‘Jesus Loves Me.'”

Slegers plans to return to Guatemala regularly, probably every second year, to provide additional dental care to residents who have been underserved throughout their lives.

She also plans to give each of her children the opportunity to experience the rewards of missionary work. By helping with her group dental care trips, she hopes they’ll find similar rewards from helping people who live simple lives in impoverished countries and who have much lower standards of living than what her family enjoys in its own daily routine.

“Someone has to experience missionary service to truly knows what it’s like,” she said. “It’s the people you meet, serve and interact with. A piece of my heart will always be with them.”

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