The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Mission trip develops into reason to smile

Seeing children in the Embera village of Panama smile is one of the most rewarding sights for dentist Chris Burseth. The wide grins don’t simply mean happiness — they show that Burseth, his family and others are making a difference.

Mission Save a Smile, founded in 2007, has aided hundreds of people in remote areas of Panama, including the San Blas island of Achutupu. With the latest in portable equipment, some of which has been developed through work by Mission Save a Smile, people who had never seen a dentist are receiving high quality dental care.

Burseth and other dentists, aided by volunteers from his congregation, Bethany Lutheran, Crystal Lake, Ill., provide extractions, root canals and even full dentures.

Mission Save a Smile was inspired by Bethany’s mission work in Costa Rica. “I was helping with construction work at the time, in 2005 and 2006,” Burseth said. “I like doing construction. During that time I saw there was a substantial need for dental care not being addressed and that I had the skill to help.”

Burseth gave some basic assistance on those trips, but he and his family wanted to create a larger project. In 2007 he attended an education seminar in Panama. He visited the Embera village in the rain forest and learned that dental care was a major medical concern. Later that year, Mission Save a Smile was born, followed soon by the first official visit to Embera.

The first trips involved a variety of unusual workarounds for equipment, including using scuba tanks to supply air for the dental drills. Eventually more advanced equipment was transported to Panama, including two military field unit dental chairs.

The initial success led to adding other villages to the twice-yearly visits. In 2009 the ministry added Achutupu, which lacks electricity and running water. “We see 600 children there,” Burseth said.

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