UI freshman changes lives through mission trips

BY LUKE VOELZ | AUGUST 25, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Jamaican boy was nervous, starting to cry and shaking slightly as he ascended the padded leather chair. He had never seen a dentist in his life, so the set of shiny dental appliances seemed like a madman’s armory.

Suddenly, he heard a gentle voice.

“Hey,” it said. “It’ll be all right. We’re here to help you.”

That voice belonged to 15-year-old Bianca Long, who was traveling to Jamaica with the Des Moines Lutheran Church of Hope in 2005. She was assisting her dentist father on Mission Jamaica, a volunteer trip offering dental services to poor residents of Montego Bay.

“Calming the patients down is a struggle,” the now 18-year-old said. “Especially for kids, because they don’t have the opportunity to go to the dentist like we do here.”

The lack of dentistry in small villages near Montego Bay meant many residents suffered from cavities or teeth that had rotted out, leaving the only option to pull tooth after tooth. Long recalled surprise at the villagers’ bright dispositions despite the severity of their dental problems.

“They were super grateful for the help,” the incoming University of Iowa freshman said. “Here [in America,] we take for granted even getting our teeth cleaned at the dentist.”

Long’s parents had attended the trip, first offered solely to adults, every year for almost a decade. When it first opened to youth in 2003, she signed up with no hesitation.

“I would have tried to talk her into it [if she hadn’t wanted to go,]” said her father, Larry Long. “It’s fun to help people and really educate people on how to take care of their teeth.”

But Bianca Long needed no convincing.

“I like the opportunity to serve people in need,” she said. “It’s great to see how God works through us while we served people in need at the [Jamaican] church.”

Her most recent trip came as youth volunteer rates dropped by 5 percent nationwide, according to a 2010 survey by the Corporation for National and Community Service. While the corporation placed the blame on declining volunteer opportunities for youth, Long suspects the culprit could be increasingly hectic schedules among high-schoolers.

Though the UI has no volunteer-service requirements for incoming students, UI Community-Based Learning Program Coordinator Mary Matthew Wilson said most students like Long who volunteer before college tend to carry that enthusiasm as they grow older.

“I think they come here with [drive to volunteer] more ingrained in them,” she said. “I’ve seen many students influenced by their experiences as part of faith-based groups.”

Long’s volunteering also sparked an interest in dental work that she pursued at her father’s office upon returning from the 2005 trip. Though her fall semester classes focus on business and economics, she admitted giving some thought to pre-dentistry — a pursuit bolstered by her strong stomach.

“I love working with people I see at my dad’s office and building relationships with patients like he does,” she said. “The whole ‘teeth thing’ doesn’t really bother me.”

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