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Dental Care International launches fifth year of Sri Lankan program

November 21, 2016

By David Burger

Kandy, Sri Lanka — From a girls home to a career as a dental surgery assistant, Udeni Rathnayaka has had a remarkable journey.

When she was 13, she was in an abusive environment. The local court moved her to the Jeewanakana Girls Home.

After leaving the facility at age 18, she returned home and got a job. She worked from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. each day, seven days a week, with miniscule pay, poor conditions and little hope.


Raising hope: Dr. Dawn McClellan of Dental Care International plays with children of tea estate workers in 2014 in the hill country of Sri Lanka.
All that changed when Ms. Rathnayaka was chosen to come to Dental Care International's dental surgery assistant program, where, after a year, she graduated first in her class with honors.

"Her hope is to travel abroad and work as a dental surgery assistant, to be able to help support the girls home that helped her," said Dr. Dawn McClellan, co-founder of the nonprofit Dental Care International. "She wants to be a role model for other young girls living there now and to let them know there is hope."

The fifth year of DCI's dental surgery assistant program began with 10 new students who were chosen by Dr. McClellan and others to embark on a new life that the students never imagined. After one year, the students will be ready to join a job market where the demand is high for qualified dental assistants.

"Tea estate workers in Sri Lanka live under a system similar to what we would call colonial rule," Dr. McClellan said from her dental office in Las Vegas. "Many have no citizenship, wages are insufficient to meet daily needs, health care and education is nonexistent or very poor and little if any chance to escape the system. Many of these little girls will become tea pluckers, just like their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

"In the near future we hope to include more girls who may not have grown up in a children's homes yet come from very poor families with few opportunities," Dr. McClellan said.

Dr. McClellan and Mike PeQueen co-founded Dental Care International in 2001 to run mobile clinics in war-torn Sri Lanka, and since then volunteers and staff have treated more than 71,000 patients and donated more than $5 million in dental services around the world. Dental Care International has expanded to include screening and treatment to rural schoolchildren in Ecuador as well as a Las Vegas clinic that serves underserved inner-city children.

Three to four times a year, Dr. McClellan and groups of volunteer dentists travel to Sri Lanka to help train the dental surgery assistants at a center near Kandy, in what is the only government-accredited dental assistant program in the country. Two local dental surgeons and graduates of the program teach the students year-round.

Dr. McClellan chooses young women who are 18 or older, have not graduated from high school and have "nowhere else to go," she said. Eighty percent of the graduates are still working in dental medicine, she said.

California-based prosthodontist Dr. Evangelos Rossopoulos first started volunteering in Sri Lanka four years ago and remarked on the obstacles the students face and overcome. "This is a developing country that saw 450 years of occupation by the Portuguese, Dutch and English and after their independence a major tsunami and a 25-year civil war that resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives and 300,000 misplaced," he said. "Providing the young girls of those childrens' homes the tools and education to make something out of themselves was a concept that was not considered before but one can easily realize how important it is. Many of these girls would end up as slave wives or in the streets again. Now they are all gainfully employed and were also taught self-confidence and life values."

Dr. Oariona Lowe, a California-based pediatric dentist, also first started volunteering with Dental Care International four years ago. "I continue to support Dental Care International because I embrace the need to offer educational opportunities for young women which will lead to better life experiences," she said. "Many of the women who are part of the Dental Care International dental assistant training program are orphaned, abused, are survivors of tragedy and poverty and come from a weak family foundation. I want to help and continue to provide a means for them to live normal, happy lives."

"Being a small part of the transformation of these young ladies into a successful, employed member of the society with a bright future in front of them is so rewarding," Dr. Rossopoulos said. "Dr. McClellan's work in Las Vegas, Ecuador and Sri Lanka is well recognized. Her vision and establishment of the dental assistant school in Sri Lanka is just the beginning — I would love to see what her next project is."

To learn more about Dental Care International and how to sponsor a student, volunteer or donate, visit dcare.org or call 1-702-272-1100. For more opportunities, go to the ADA Foundation's International Dental Volunteer Organizations website: internationalvolunteer.ADA.org.