The UNC Mexico Project is the oldest and biggest of the International Services and Outreach Programs at the University of North Carolina. This initiative was created by Dr. Ronald Strauss, a faculty member in the Department of Dental Ecology at UNC. Dr. Strauss was inspired by his life lessons growing up in an immigrant household and went on to build a career in caring for others and inspiring many of his students to become more committed to community service and to helping under-served populations. The Mexico Project was launched in 1987 after Dr. Strauss visited Mexico creating a partnership between the UNC School of Dentistry and an international organization called Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) that provides homes for orphaned and abandoned children in Latin America.
NPH was started in 1954 by a priest named William Wasson who adopted a child convicted of stealing from his church in Mexico, rather than pressing charges. Over the course of that year, Wasson ended up adopting 31 more disadvantaged children and the program grew from there. NPH is now a multinational humanitarian organization, which has provided homes for thousands of children in six different countries.
All children at NPH are provided with psycho-pedagogical support, medical and dental care. The students of Project Mexico provide an invaluable service in the dental area, from material and equipment to the clinic and help to develop the “Week of Oral Health” coordinated by a part-time volunteer dentist working in NPH. In their short stay at Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos, the UNC dental students review the oral health of as many children as possible and focus on identifying patients who need care and follow-up with the Home Dentist / Volunteer. All the material provided by the project is the result of a long process of collection of donations by sponsors in the dental field and of a series of events organized by the students to generate funds to help provide the medical / dental needs of the House Home.
When the UNC students are in NPH they live in the orphanage bedroom and eat and live with the children in the dining room of the house, this is something that cultivates a close relationship with the children and leads to a better understanding of their needs and, therefore, to better attention to the needs of the little ones. In the home, students also gain direct experience with the health care system in Mexico and get a first-hand view of how developing nations support places like this where medical resources are limited and dental services are scarce.
It is clear that the children of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos play a key factor in the project. All UNC students return with a different mindset after having had such a close relationship with the orphans. The orphanage is an amazing place simply full of love and care. Everything functions as a great family where children participate in the work and organization of the orphanage and at the same time they are valued and educated to be better human beings and professionals. This vision of struggle and tireless effort is not ignored by visiting students, every year the main donations to the Project Mexico come from alumni who had the opportunity to share this wonderful experience in Mexico in the past.
After Dr. Strauss left the school of dentistry, the Department of Dental Ecology was coordinating the Project contacting local dentist in Mexico to host the program. In 2012 Dr. Carolina Vera started as the new faculty advisor of the Project. Dr. Vera, being originally from Mexico with previous business experience in the medical field and having a full dental license in Mexico and United States, was able to quickly start with the expansion of this project creating different channels of true collaboration with different Universities and sponsorship with different company’s manufacturers, suppliers, dental laboratories of high prestige, dental offices and leading specialists in the dental and medical field. She wanted to change the concept of the Mexico Project from being just a community outreach program helping the underserved to a true interchange of education, research, scientific and professional knowledge, and Bi-national collaboration and culture.
Dr. Vera is part of an international organization of Mexican Leaders created by the Mexican Government – Minister of Foreign Affairs. This group is constantly working and creating several projects in the areas of Economics, Health and Education with the help and support of the Mexican Government. She has combined efforts in order to provide a broad exposure of the social, professional, cultural and educational resources that the country has. Students travel through cultural areas and when they visit educational centers, hospitals and institutes, they receive lectures in specialized medical or dental areas by qualified professionals in the area and visit institutions guided by dentists or voluntary physicians in this project.
In this year’s trip (2018), Dr. Vera started the second stage of growth of the program taking the Mexico Project to the next level in terms of education and research opportunities for the students of both countries. The Mexico Project is expanded to four different states in Mexico providing preventive dental care and support to the ones in need in the states of Morelos, Queretaro, Puebla and State of Mexico. The Project is working with the help of the Mexican Government- Minister of Health, and the collaboration of professors, graduate and undergraduate students of the most prestigious local Universities of each state, the International College of Dentists, the local orphanages in every state and of course the support and sponsorship of private practitioners and local institutions who want to give back to the community by joining efforts with the UNC students.
This year Dr. Vera started several meetings with renowned researchers, physicians and institutions to create different bridges of international collaboration between different renowned Universities in Mexico like The Nacional University of Mexico- School of Dentistry, The Benemerita University Automomus of Puebla, University Autonomus of Queretaro and The Nino Morelense Hospital- Department of Craneo-facial Surgery. The goal is for the Mexico Project to continue growing as an international bridge of education, science, culture and fraternity between the two countries so it can benefit more people and more students and more faculty. On each trip students return with a different mentality and vision for the experiences lived on the trip, motivating and helping them to understand how this international program within the University of North Carolina had changed their lives to be better professionals in the future.
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