The Healthy Teeth Foundation helps children in poor countries by doing action research and offering education in the field of oral hygiene. That’s important, because many disadvantaged African and Asian children don’t go to school because of toothache and tooth decay. Founder Alice Grasveld decided to make a difference.
In 2009 Alice Grasveld, a dental hygienist from the Dutch city of The Hague, travels to the south of Kenya to participate in a volunteer project of the Dutch Dental Care Foundation (DDC). Inspired by the local culture and the work, she decides to start studying Anthropology. For her master thesis in 2014 she looks at dental projects in developing countries from an anthropological perspective.
Starting her own project in this field, in South Africa, is a logical next step. First she does so under the wings of other organizations and researchers, but in 2018 she founds her very own The Healthy Teeth Foundation.
Action research, education, and care
Because she is a dental hygienist, a (medical) anthropologist, and an action researcher at the university, Alice operates on a very interesting intersection. She can perform valuable scientific research, while at the same time offering education and care. All three activities are much needed because large NGOs do focus on care, but dental care usually gets overlooked. This is surprising, when we look at the relation between failing oral hygiene and underdevelopment. Sickness from tooth decay leads to reduced self-confidence and school absenteeism. This clearly and actively contributes to preserving a cycle of vicious poverty. Something that’s also true for diarrhea, therefore Alice incorporates the importance of washing hands and hygiene in general in her classes.
Her most recent project took place in Mamba Village in Kwale, Kenya. Grasveld again combined her anthropological curiosity with paramedical knowhow, and a desire to improve the world. By continuing to work with DDC, the organizations were able to offer dental treatment (DDC) and prevention through education (THTF) to twice as many people.
One month before the start of the DDC project, Alice and her team of students and young professionals travelled to Mamba to get to know the local culture and most of the project’s stakeholders. This way they’d maximize their chances of having a long-lasting impact. They visited the town’s herbalist, village elders, and the area chief to get acquainted and build rapport. The primary school was given a central role, because children spent most of their time there anyway, and conditions for change are not always guaranteed at home.
Parents, teachers, and the rest of the community were actively involved in the project and there even was an educational play made to inform the people. In the play a child has a severe toothache. After going to see the herbalist and the priest it turns out that only the dentist can cure the child’s problem. By finding out which methods fit the local culture and delegating the follow-up to Kenyan dentists, Alice is hoping her work has a lasting effect.
Next year Alice will return to Mamba to see how the kids are doing with brushing and hand washing. She’s reasonably hopeful of a good outcome, not in the last place because of the positive attitude and cooperation of ‘her’ school’s dean.
This doesn’t mean the work can’t be frustrating, Alice tells us. “I’d like to bring brushes and toothpaste for everybody we meet over there. Especially in Kenya, which is extremely poor, you can never do enough.” Although the work at times feels like a drop in the ocean, Grasveld is determined to continue. Combining The Healthy Teeth Foundation with her work in a dental hygiene practice and at the Academic Centre for Dentistry Amsterdam gives her a great deal of satisfaction. “It’s so simple, teaching people the importance of brushing your teeth and washing your hands, but so effective. The children are healthier, pain free, and able to go to school. This offers them a chance at a better future, but besides that it’s just great fun to work with them! They’re always so happy and joyful, that’s why we do this!”
We are very proud of Alice and her team and hope to be able to contribute in our modest little way for many years to come. If you also became a fan of Alice, you can donate to her cause here. Dutch residents can also use this Tikkie link: https://bit.ly/2KZWrZe