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Project Stretch Helps Children of New Orleans

Project Stretch Helps Children of New OrleansNearly a year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, volunteers from Tufts School of Dental Medicine traveled to New Orleans to provide much needed dental care to the city’s children.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [08.29.06] Dr.James Kraus, a first-year resident in Tufts' postgraduate oral and maxillofacial surgery program, remembers his initial reaction when he heard that Project Stretch was planning a trip to New Orleans: "Where do I sign up?" The 2006 Tufts School of Dental Medicine graduate quickly seized the opportunity to head south with a team of Tufts-trained dentists to aid their colleagues and provide dental care to the children of New Orleans, a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Kane"I've been hearing about the trips for years," says Kraus, who eagerly volunteered to go to New Orleans in June. "I was looking forward to the opportunity to help the underserved and use some of the everyday skills that I've acquired at school."

Kraus learned of Project Stretch-a Tufts-based volunteer organization that provides dental care and education to disadvantaged children around the world-through his mentor, Dr. David Tesini, who helped to found the program. Tesini, an associate clinical professor at Tufts School of Dental Medicine, said the group jumped at the chance to lend a hand in New Orleans since its past projects had been outside the United States, based in countries such as Venezuela and Cape Verde.

"We've always wanted to run programs in our country, but it's hard, because of the licensing requirements," says Tesini, who graduated from Tufts School of Dental Medicine in 1975 and Tufts' postgraduate pediatric dentistry program in 1977.

Despite the licensing challenges, Tesini felt compelled to do what he could to help the people of New Orleans after seeing images of Hurricane Katrina devastation. "It was just natural for an organization like Project Stretch to make itself available to the children down there, who had lost much more than just their dental records."

Tesini contacted the Society of Saint Edmund-a religious group that Project Stretch had worked with in the past. The group, which has a parish and a middle school near the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, invited Project Stretch to set up a program there, provided that they were able to obtain temporary dental licenses to practice in Louisiana. After the proper paperwork had been secured, a team of Tufts dentists headed to New Orleans with portable dental equipment in tow.

Project Stretch's goals were to provide basic screening for the school's children and to support local dentists, many of whom lost all of their dental records. "I wanted to go down and help in whatever way I could, and I thought this is how I'd best be able to help people out," Kraus says.

Despite the news coverage they'd seen on television, the team was unprepared for the level of devastation they discovered when they arrived in New Orleans. "I could not believe that it had been nearly nine months since the hurricane had landed," recalls Tesini, who was awed by the damage, destruction and disruption that remained. After the initial shock wore off, Tesini and his team wasted no time setting up shop at the school.

"We got everything unpacked, and by the afternoon of the first day we were starting to see our first students," recalls Kraus.

As the doctors talked with their patients, it became clear that Hurricane Katrina still loomed in the children's minds. "They talked about things based on pre-Katrina or post-Katrina," recalls Kraus. Despite having lived through the chaos, the children were surprisingly upbeat.

"Children around the world have a hope in their eyes that needs no explanation," says Tesini, who has led similar projects in Venezuela and Cape Verde. "When you have an organization like Project Stretch that is going down there and helping these kids, whether it be in terms of prevention ... or alleviating their pain, I think that reinforces the inherent hope that children have."

The children took an immediate liking to Kraus. "They were psyched to have us there; it was a blast to hang out," says Kraus. "I've never gotten so many hugs in my life. It was overwhelming."

Many of the children had never had dental care before, says Kraus, "so they didn't have the negative connotations that kids normally associate with dentists." Kraus worked slowly, taking care to leave the kids with a good impression.

"I would have them come over, take a seat, show them the light, show them the mirror, count their teeth ... little things that help put them at ease," he says. "If you start them off with a few good experiences, they'll be more receptive to coming in for more substantial treatment."

In the eyes of both Tesini and Kraus, the program was a resounding success; Project Stretch was able to screen all 150 students at the school, leaving Tesini with "a tremendous sense of pride, in not only the volunteers that went down, but also ... in the people of New Orleans."

"The entire trip was overwhelming, both from a physical work aspect and an emotional aspect of seeing these kids," says Kraus. "It was a privilege for me to be there."

Kraus is looking forward to the next Project Stretch trip, wherever it takes him. "It's an opportunity to go to new places and not only provide treatment, but also learn something new about a population," he says. "You're going somewhere totally new, you're meeting totally different people, and ... you're helping them out. You can't really ask for much more than that.

Profile written by James Gerber, Class of 2008



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