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Dr. Charles F. Craft recipient of ADA Humanitarian Award

Member dentist dedicates life's work to serving disadvantaged in rural central Vietnam

January 07, 2019

By David Burger

Collage of photos featuring Dr. Craft
Da Nang, Vietnam
— Dr. Charles F. Craft lives in Nebraska, but much of his heart resides in Vietnam.

Photo of Dr. Craft
Dr. Craft
As founder of the East meets West Dental Program, in 1996 the member dentist and ambassador of goodwill directed the first American humanitarian dental project to be permanently based in Vietnam following the Vietnam War.  

The program, which focuses on training Vietnamese dental providers and enhancing the local oral health care infrastructure — not to mention treating the local rural population — is thriving. To date, the program has welcomed the services of more than 1,200 volunteer dentists, hygienists and dental students from around the world, treating in excess of 160,000 patients and providing more than $30 million of free dental care.

For this, and for his other volunteer work around the globe and in his own community, the ADA Board of Trustees has named Dr. Craft the recipient of the 2019 ADA Humanitarian Award.

Dr. Craft told the ADA News shortly after being notified of the award that while he was "extremely grateful," he said the honor should be shared with the many dentists and volunteers he served with and the East meets West Dental staff. "I don't want to sound like I'm special," he said. "I just found myself in a desperate place with a real opportunity to help people who were in need."

Group photo of Dr. Craft wtih volunteers
Hope delivery: A team of volunteers from Alaska visits the Que Xuan Primary School in Quang Nam, Vietnam in 2017. Dr. Charles Craft is in the front row with the duck hat on his left knee.
Dr. Craft continued: "I want to express my appreciation to the rural Vietnamese villagers who suffered so much during the war but welcomed so many volunteers back to their beautiful country to assist them on the road to recovery. It has been a professional honor to uphold the trust they have given us to treat their children with proper care and compassion."
 
"Dr. Craft has dedicated his life to providing access to care for needy populations both in the U.S. and abroad, truly creating a legacy of service," said Dr. Jeffrey M. Cole, ADA president. "The Board of Trustees and I were impressed by his East meets West Dental Program in Vietnam, where Dr. Craft's ability to forge personal and political alliances, navigate local culture and lay the groundwork for his program under difficult conditions have and will continue to inspire countless others to get involved."

Established in 2008, the ADA Humanitarian Award annually honors an ADA member for creating a legacy of volunteer work and is one of the Association's highest honors. Criteria for the Humanitarian Award include significantly improving the quality of life and oral health of individuals both in the U.S. and abroad over a period of 10 years or more; demonstrating significant leadership; and serving as an inspiration to others both in the dental profession and the general population.

Photo of Dr. Craft and Dr. Allen
Happiness: Dr. Charles Craft (left) and Dr. Bob Allen, of Alaska, pose with rural Vietnamese schoolchildren in 2017.
The award includes a $10,000 donation to the dental project of the recipient's choice — the East meets West Dental Program, in Dr. Craft's case — a bronze cast statue and about $5,000 in travel support for the winner and his family to attend the award ceremony at the Opening General Session of the ADA FDI World Dental Congress in San Francisco in September.

In addition to Vietnam, Dr. Craft has served on other volunteer dental mission trips in Afghanistan, Borneo, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Jamaica, Mongolia, Madagascar, Nepal, the Philippines, Russia, Samoa, Sri Lanka and Thailand, as well as in his home state of Nebraska.

Colleagues' support

Many of his associates commended Dr. Craft's volunteerism in Vietnam.

"His humanitarian work has had enormous impact," said Dr. Stan Shulman, a dentist in Washington D.C., who nominated Dr. Craft for the award.  "It has improved the dental health of countless thousands of patients overseas; it has made new friends for America; and it has even helped foster peace. With his full depth of experience, Dr. Craft is well suited to teach our dental community the most effective means to deliver essential international care to underserved populations. As a recipient of the ADA Humanitarian Award, his audience will multiply." Dr. Shulman first met Dr. Craft when the two served together in 1980 in the U.S. Public Health Service in Alaska. Ever since then, Dr. Shulman has been a believer in Dr. Craft's work.

Dr. Craft's dedication to serving the underserved began right after he graduated from the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Dentistry in 1980. That year, Dr. Craft began his career serving as a dental officer in the U.S. Public Health Services Indian Health Service. He provided care to Eskimo, Indian and Aleut patients in some of the most remote regions of Alaska, largely using portable dental units via airplane, boat or snowmobile.

Photo of a visit to a rural village school site
From us to you: From left, Lt. Col. Jack Wells, volunteer Le Ly Hayslip and Dr. Charles Craft visit a rural village school site in Vietnam in 2017.
"I joined the U.S. Public Health Service because I wanted to help people who had overwhelming need," Dr. Craft said. "I wanted to challenge myself to make a difference."

A few years later he began volunteering in the first of more than 15 countries overseas, but was especially passionate about his work in Vietnam.

Why Vietnam? Dr. Craft said that the devastation he witnessed in that country went far beyond what he saw in other developing countries. "People were just existing day-to-day," he said. "There was no color, no smiles from the children and no hope for the future. As an American, I felt partially responsible for that."

Memories of the Vietnam War were strong for him, as the homecoming king of his small high school was killed in action in 1971.

According to Dr. Shulman's nomination letter, "From 1975 to 1995, there was an international embargo and Vietnam became a closed, economically isolated country. Only minimal post-war development or reconstruction was possible during this period. In 1993, Dr. Craft was one of the first American dentists to travel throughout post-war Vietnam. He observed a devastated health care structure, especially in the countryside. People were barely able to exist day to day, let alone find access to dental services. In 1995, Dr. Craft returned to Vietnam and met administrators at the National Dental University in Saigon, who told him the entire population desperately needed dental care, but especially those in the rural central region of the country, where the war had been exceptionally intense and brutal. Directors at the Village of Hope and Peace Village, Da Nang centers for displaced children, also asked for his urgent assistance. He gave his word that he would return with supplies and personnel to help."

Return he did.

Development of East meets West Program

With dental public health friends from Alaska, Dr. Craft set up the first American dental clinic since the end of the war. The clinic, located near the central city of Da Nang on China Beach, partnered with the Vietnam Red Cross and overcame multiple demanding local administrative challenges from the suspicious officials who still had fresh memories of the hostilities between the two countries.

On March 25, 1996, the East meets West Dental Program opened with two Vietnamese dentists and one dental nurse, trained by Dr. Craft. They treated about 1,000 patients in the first year and operated on a budget of about $15,000, mostly donated by Dr. Craft's parents.

Photo of Dr. Craft teaching new procedures to staff
Technique: Dr. Charles Craft teaches the East meets West Dental staff some new procedures at the East meets West Dental Center in Da Nang, Vietnam, in 2017.
In 1999, Dr. Craft moved overseas to be closer to his Vietnam clinic. He supported himself by working as the chief dental officer at an international dental clinic in Cambodia, which provided care to the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh. This allowed him to travel to Vietnam more frequently, thereby helping to expand the program more rapidly.

By 2010, the program had evolved to the point where the Vietnamese staff were now capable of running the program without his direct supervision. Dr. Craft assumed the role of founder and senior program advisor.

Mark Conroy, a program advisor for the East meets West Dental Program, sent a letter to the ADA recommending Dr. Craft for the award. "I first met Dr. Craft in 1995 when only a handful of Americans had been allowed to enter the country after Vietnam and the U.S. finally fully restored diplomatic relations after the war. Dr. Craft has probably visited his dental program about 100 times over the last 20 years. I have seen him return time after time to volunteer his skills while forgoing his own personal income and putting his professional career on hold. He has put in countless hours with long days and nights to help build this program from the ground up. He overcame a lot of major setbacks and there were many times we both thought the program might fail, but he never gave in. East meets West is now a self-sustainable program that is thriving and it has empowered the Vietnamese dental staff to become the leaders in public health dentistry in the central region of the country."

In 2012, the dental program celebrated its 100,000th patient and moved into a new clinic, the East meets West Dental Center in Da Nang. The team now consists of 15 full-time staff members: four dentists, six dental nurses and five administrative support staff. The East meets West dental team continues to receive ongoing technical assistance from over 20 dental advisors from Ho Chi Minh City, the U.S., Canada, England and numerous other countries.

Back stateside

Dr. Craft returned to the U.S in 2012 and continued to lead fundraising and coordinate volunteers from all over the world — including more than 20 international dental universities. He has continued to return many times, often with students from the dental school at his alma mater.

After returning from Cambodia, Dr. Craft was selected to be the Nebraska state dental director for the Office of Oral Health and Dentistry at the Department of Health and Human Services.

He now volunteers as a faculty instructor at the University of Nebraska College of Dentistry in Lincoln and the Creighton School of Dentistry in Omaha.

Photo of students receiving dental education training
First toothbrush: Vietnamese students receive dental educational training inside of their rural classroom in central Vietnam in 2017.
Dr. Craft also often joins both schools at their many charity and outreach events, which include Special Olympics, Project Homeless Connect and local community health fairs. He has volunteered for years at the People's City Mission in Lincoln and annually participates in the Mission of Mercy events sponsored by the Nebraska Dental Association.

"We are well aware of Dr. Craft's overseas humanitarian efforts and are happy to state that he also demonstrates this same spirit of volunteer service within the state of Nebraska," said David O'Doherty, executive director of the Nebraska Dental Association, in a recommendation letter.

Dr. Craft served as a commissioned dental officer for more than 25 years with the U.S. Public Health Service, reaching the rank of Captain (O-6). A veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Dr. Craft has received numerous professional awards including the Outstanding Service Medal from the U.S. Surgeon General, the Royal Sahametrei Knight Medal from the prime minister of Cambodia and the Golden Heart Award from the Da Nang Red Cross. He was the recipient of the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Dentistry Alumni Achievement Award in 2009.

As a result of Dr. Craft's volunteer liaison work, the U.S. Military and the Vietnamese government have partnered with the East meets West Dental Program on numerous humanitarian assistance missions in provincial locations throughout Vietnam. In 2010, the Pacific commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, on behalf of the president, presented Dr. Craft with the Meritorious Service Medal, stating, "His extensive operational field experience and invaluable cultural knowledge have meaningfully contributed to the reopening of naval military and diplomatic relationships in the post-war countries of Cambodia and Vietnam."

"Dr. Craft has elevated public health dentistry in our country and introduced important preventive care programs throughout central Vietnam," said Hoang Hung, Ph.D., former vice dean of the National Medicine University in Ho Chi Minh City, in a letter of recommendation to the ADA. "His selfless dedication to helping Vietnam recover from our post-war period and improve health conditions for our people has left a lasting legacy that will continue to benefit future generations. His humanitarian example will serve as an inspiration for our dental students and other foreigners who wish to provide assistance to the disadvantaged children and local people in Vietnam."

Photo of Dr. Craft treating a patient
Come together: Dr. Charles Craft and University of Nebraska dental student Mary Chapman treat a patient at Que Xuan Primary School in Quang Nam, Vietnam, in 2017.
"I have continued to be impressed again and again from the creation of this outstanding dental program by Dr. Craft," said U.S. Marine Lt. Col. (ret.) Jack Wells, who served in Vietnam from 1968-9. He has been a frequent supporter of East meets West outreach missions, often conducted in many of the very same hamlets where Lt. Col. Wells served. "Through his leadership and volunteer guidance over the last 20 years, this international project has grown beyond dental care and was instrumental in helping to heal the wounds of war and rebuild relationships of trust and friendship between two cultures that had been former enemies. Dr. Craft has brought honor to the American dental profession."

"Dr. Craft always tells the Vietnamese staff that our patients may be poor but they have personal dignity," Mr. Conroy said. "And if they are treated with respect and compassion we can earn their trust. And trust builds friendship that leads to stability, which brings about peace. I think the East meets West dental program has not only alleviated suffering for many thousands of needy children but is stands for something of even greater value. It represents how separate cultures can put aside their violent history and work together to improve conditions for future generations. And it demonstrates the power of the dental profession to transcend those barriers and rebuild important international relationships."

Dr. Craft's award won't allow him to rest on his laurels, with many more trips to Vietnam already in the works. "I will always be involved in public health dentistry," he said.

To explore international oral health volunteer opportunities, go to the ADA Foundation's International Dental Volunteer Organizations website: internationalvolunteer.ADA.org.