Jill Smith treating children at Tautu Primary School in Norsup, Malekula Island.
Jill Smith treating children at Tautu Primary School in Norsup, Malekula Island. Contributed

Volunteers for brighter smiles

IN early 2012, Jill Smith replied to an advertisement in That's Life magazine seeking volunteers for a dental health program.

By the end of that year she found herself signed up with Smile Vanuatu and helping out on the island of Malekula.

Now, seven years later, the dental nurse who lives outside Biloela towards Thangool has made six trips to the hospital and schools on the island, each time working with hundreds of children to improve their oral hygiene.

With her husband Gav, who has accompanied her on all their trips, the couple will be returning to Malekula this Saturday with the registered charity.

Gav, who is a "plumber, dental assistant or whatever he needs to be”, and Jill have taught locals how to clean and care for their teeth, while in return they have learnt how to appreciate "just being happy with what you've got”.

"We just love it. We fell in love with going and with the people. They have nothing but they're so happy and so grateful for anything that we do,” Mr Smith said.

"I would call it third world, really, the way they live and their plumbing, but they're such happy, happy people.”

Mrs Smith said that when the couple return to Australia, they try to smile more and stress less.

"They don't stress like we do. They're very religious people and they're very community and family based,” she said.

"Workwise, they make do and they grow their own food and they walk a lot. They sing and greet you. Sometimes they don't even have water for you to wash your hands, but they'll find it. They'll carry a kettle with water from another village.

"They're very, very giving.”

Mrs Smith said the couple usually worked with a team of two dentists, four therapists and a couple of dental nurses.

This trip, the Smiths will spend a week visiting four schools and the hospital, and during that time they will be part of a team treating anywhere from 600-1000 people, including teachers.

"We treat all the children from Kindy to Year 12. We screen every child and every child gets a toothbrush and we teach them how to clean their teeth.

"We can clean their teeth at the school, and we can do extractions and minimal fillings.”

Mrs Smith, who worked as a dental nurse at Biloela hospital for 23 years until last year and now works at CQUniversity in the sterilisation department, said returning to Vanuatu was "just like going back to family”.

She said she also noticed improvements in the population's overall oral hygiene each year.

"Every year that we go back you can tell that we're making a difference.

"Everyone that we see, we give them a toothbrush and toothpaste.”

The director of Smile Vanuatu, Christine Southall, said the volunteer group of oral health professionals was dedicated to promoting oral hygiene through health promotion, education, research and activism.

Ms Southall started the organisation in 2001 with a plan to establish and maintain a working relationship between Vanuatu Health, the population on Malekula Island and volunteering Australian oral health professionals.

She said the aim was to provide a sustainable public health program that would be advantageous for future generations of people in Vanuatu.


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