It’s a “second-time lucky” case for Marlborough couple, dental therapist Andrea Carr and her husband, David Hart, who had to restart their volunteering adventures in Vanuatu after the Covid pandemic scuppered David’s first assignment.
The pair had reached out to VSA about volunteering in the Pacific Island group out of a desire to understand more about and connect better with, the seasonal workers who work in their vineyard and prune their grapes. “We wanted to be more supportive of their community in New Zealand,” says Andrea. They had also previously holidayed in Vanuatu and volunteered there less formally, helping with clean-up efforts after Cyclone Pam devastated the region in 2015.
David’s original placement through VSA was as a business mentor in horticulture on Malekula, Vanuatu’s second-largest island. Andrea joined him as a VSA accompanying partner and began talking about utilising her dentistry skills for a volunteer assignment. But it was late 2019 and come March 2020, the Covid pandemic sadly saw them repatriated to New Zealand.
But they both knew they were not done and as soon as it was possible, Andrea and David headed back to Vanuatu, arriving in December of last year - this time for a two-year tenure on Espiritu Santo. “We felt our adventure had been cut short and we were delighted to have a chance to pick it up again,” said Andrea. David took on an employment contract with Farmland, a Santo rural supplies store.
Andrea’s assignment is with the Northern Provincial Hospital (NPH), helping to provide safe and effective clinical oral health care to the young children and young adults of Luganville and Sanma Province. The NPH Oral Health Services Clinic currently has just two dental surgeons - a population to dentist ratio of 1: 38,000 - and two locally trained dental assistants. There is no dental therapist or dental hygienist and, due to the lack of staff, most of the services provided by the clinic are curative. As such, preventative work is also a key focus area for the hospital and an important part of Andrea’s role. She supports the delivery of the Gudfala Tut Skul / Good Fella Tooth School programme; educating young children about good dental practices, diet, and hygiene with the aim of improving tooth health among 5-7-year-olds; 70% percent of whom have cavities.
Andrea says that there are “good systems and ‘good bones’” within the NPH dental provision, due to a history of Chinese dental volunteers visiting the region. The Gudfala Tut Skul initiative provides toothbrushes and Vanuatu-made toothpaste to the children as well as resources such as posters and books for the schools. There is also a screening programme where Andrea carries out simple in-school oral exams and makes referrals for treatment as needed.
Andrea’s assignment also involves mentoring and chair-side training for local dental assistants and she has used her connections in New Zealand to secure the donation of educational resources from Te Pukenga, New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology. “I reached out to see if we could use some of their resources from the Certificate in Health & Wellbeing course and they generously gave us the whole programme!” Whilst the dental assistants cannot gain official certification, they are able to complete the learning modules and assessments to help support their work at the clinic.
Dr. Lannya Kalpukai, a dental intern at NPH says “Having Andrea as part of our team is a blessing. She not only has 30 years of experience that we can draw on but also helps to improve our dental services, one step at a time. We now have a paediatric room in our clinic, which Andrea even helped to paint! We are grateful to have the support of VSA, via their volunteers and their donations of much-needed equipment.”
Andrea is acutely aware of the need to ensure that the contributions she makes are enduring. “Everything we do during our time here needs to be sustainable. The aim is to ensure that the team can continue - and develop upon - the work that we do together, without relying on me or another volunteer for support going forward” she says.
At times that can be challenging, particularly when it comes to resources; when equipment such as printers or X-ray machines break down it can be weeks or months before parts are accessed or funding approved for replacements. “Patience is key,” says Andrea. “Slowly, slowly. That is their culture, and you need to work within that. You can’t rush things here. If you want to create change and have any sort of sustainable impact, it is important to build foundations and relationships first.”
Andrea speaks highly of the support that she and her husband have received from VSA, urging others interested in volunteering abroad to go through a respected body. “As well as assistance with accommodation and living costs, VSA provides support to help you settle into community life, such as Bislama (the official language of Vanuatu) classes and cultural lessons facilitated by locals. VSA helps give your volunteering efforts structure and purpose and there is so much opportunity for personal, professional, and cultural growth - just do it!” she says.