Teams provide glasses, dental care and housebuilding

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BRATTLEBORO — Seventeen years ago, Brooke Finnell began traveling to El Salvador as part of a team of dentists, dental hygienists and optometrists. Now, as a board member of Epilogos Charities, which focuses on the village of San Jose Villanueva, she coordinates teams of volunteers traveling to the village.

Two Brattleboro doctors — a dentist and an optometrist — initiated the healthcare project.

"Sight and Bite was started locally by Dr. Peter Abel and Dr. Jennifer Ambler before I got involved," Finnell explained. "A team of dentists and optometrists would go to El Salvador to provide dental care and eye exams. We'd generally spend a week in the country and do five days of clinics. The optometrists collected glasses up here that weren't needed anymore, and the dentists were able to provide extractions and fillings."

In 2000, Finnell, a dental hygienist, decided to travel with the team.

"Peter Abel and Dr. Jerry Theberge had been going down for several years, and I thought it would be interesting, but I wanted to wait until my daughter was a little older to travel there," she recalled. "She went as a teenager, and once I went that first time and experienced it, I can't stop going now.

"I really fell in love with the country, and enjoy the spirit of the people," she went on. "They are lovely, kind, generous - for people who have very little, they offer a lot."

The project has expanded beyond Brattleboro.

"A lot of local dentists and optometrists have been on the trip, but we also have people from all over New England who join us," Finnell noted. "We used to do our Sight and Bite trips in two other villages, but we no longer go there; now our work is primarily focused in San Jose Villanueva."

The teams sought to make their work sustainable, and at one point tried to partner with a university in El Salvador.

"It worked very well — for one year," Finnell said. "Our hope was that they would be able to provide services to the villages throughout the year, but unfortunately that partnership was not able to be sustained.

"Part of the problem that we have now is that there's a lot of gang violence in El Salvador," she explained, "so there are a lot of areas that are no longer safe to go to."

Epilogos, a charity started by two Peace Corps volunteers, is active in the village.

"We're based in Concord, New Hampshire and San Jose," Finnell said. "Our focus is on providing education, safe housing, clean water, and cook stoves, and now, because there's so much violence in El Salvador, we're trying to create programs for youth in the community so they have another outlet."

As Volunteer Coordinator for Epilogos, Finnell is a link between the charity and the healthcare workers.

"Team Sight and Bite has not been down for three years, but we're in the process right now of getting together a group to go in October," she said. "We're going to try a combination house-building and Sight and Bite trip."

This year's team is all returnees. Volunteers arrange their own flights and pay all their own expenses; Finnell works with Epilogos staff to coordinate their stay.

"They stay at a retreat center called Ayagualo, which is a safe place to be, just outside the village," she said. "The group challenges are keeping everybody focused and on-task, and having everyone meet the bus when they're supposed to - and having the bus be where it's supposed to when it's supposed to be there.

"The other challenge is, it's hot," she noted. "And depending on what time of year you go, it's also dry, so we're seeing 50 dental patients in a day in a makeshift space, and it's hot. We're generally in a school or a community space."

She finds the work in the village enormously rewarding.

"I went on a housebuilding trip in October, and in one week's time we were able to complete a cement-block house for a family of four," she recalled. "The family preps the land before we get there, and we have a post-and-cement-block structure that we erect, with a metal roof, which provides a safe place for the family to live. Once they have a safe place to stay and keep their belongings, it provides a sense of safety and stability; they often live in thatched, corrugated-metal and mud structures.

"I enjoyed that trip, and wanted to experience a house-building trip, but decided the best use of my skills is to provide dental skills and education," she said. "On that trip I did provide education in many classrooms."

Finnell noted that the villagers appreciate the visitors, especially in light of the increased violence in the country.

"They have projects that they need help with - for instance, putting a roof over a courtyard in a school space, or something as small as a family needing help with cement to finish their house," she said. "The people in the village come to Epilogos and ask for help with a project, and we find the resources to help.

"For the houses that we build in the village, the families go through a screening process, and they help build the house with the team that goes down, and then they pay a small monthly mortgage payment that then pays forward toward some other project in the village," she concluded. "So our hope is that with enough partners in the U.S. and Canada, we'll be able to continue providing those resources."

Maggie Cassidy, a frequent contributor to the Reformer, can be reached at mcassidy@sover.net.

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