Bari Levine jokes about changing her middle name to “Peru” because she talks about the country so much.
The Bucks County native caught the “travel bug” after she studied in London during her years at the University of Maryland, where she graduated as an environmental science and policy major.
Levine comes from a family of dentists. Her parents met in dental school at Temple, and her brother is currently completing his residency to become a pediatric dentist.
After two office jobs, Levine decided the business world was not for her. She decided to apply for a Master of Science in public health dual degree and began dental school in Fall 2012.
Levine was in her first summer of dental school in 2012. The graduate student made a presentation in one of her master’s classes on children’s oral health in the United States. A student asked Levine to speak with her afterwards.
The student physician, who is Peruvian, was asked a month before to be the supervising physician for medical students who were going to an orphanage outside of Lima, Peru. She asked Levine if she was able to get toothbrushes and toothpaste for her to bring on the trip.
“I said, ‘Sure, but can I come?’ I completely invited myself on the trip,” Levine said.
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but Levine decided to accompany the student and grew to care deeply about the children at the orphanage.
The third-year graduate student brought the children toothbrushes, toothpaste and fluoride rinse. Seeing the minimal oral health care education and supplies available to the children was life changing, she said.
The dental student vowed to use her knowledge from her master’s program and dental school to organize an official trip to provide dental care the following year.
The subsequent year’s trip included oral health education and screening. Being a first year dental student at the time, Levine wouldn’t have been qualified to screen the children the first time she went.
Levine combined her knowledge of dentistry and public health to create a system that would best suit the children of the orphanage. and she had the children filled out questionnaires before their screenings.
“I didn’t want to start pulling teeth out without knowing if they even need our help,” Levine said.
After the trip in 2013, Levine and the other dental students were able to determine that the children’s oral health was neglected and that they needed dental care.
The second trip was Levine’s “baby,” she said. She was able to prove that her oral health model worked.
A legal agreement was signed between the orphanage and the Temple University School of Dentistry, which made it an official mission trip through the university.
“You have to really embrace the country that you’re going to and have them approve your presence there,” Levine said.
Fundraising was crucial to make future trips to Peru a possibility. To raise money, Levine and other dental students held letter-writing campaigns for local dentists.
They were able to surpass their original goal and began fundraising toward a goal of $30,000 for Summer 2015.
“[Levine] showcases her passion for this mission to Peru through her tenacity in fundraising and refining the intervention so that it improves every time,” said Freda Patterson, an assistant professor of public health at Temple.
The data from the children’s screening played a vital role in creating a better oral health care program in Peru. During Summer 2014, they were able to re-screen and educate over half the children they saw the first time.
For research, the dental students re-screened the children after one week and had them fill out the same questionnaire. They discovered that a significant number of children reported brushing after eating.
While improving the oral care of these children was priority, Levine said simply taking care of them was a remarkable experience.
“Children who have little to nothing, their whole day can be brightened by a broken yo-yo,” she said.
Levine said there were a few times when children came up to her and said, “I remember you.”
Levine said it amazed her that the children recalled her visit. When she went back this past summer, posters her and the students displayed to help children brush their teeth were still hanging up.
“It reminded me of why I chose dentistry as a career in the first place and really reaffirmed that decision,” said Alesia Walsh, a third year dental student, who accompanied Levine on the trip.
For Levine, the fact that they made an impact on the children in the span of a week was inspiring.
“My goal really would be to create a model to use to replicate in orphanages around the world,” Levine said.
The 2015 mission trip will take place July 10-17.
Emily Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org