Mayfield Heights dentist travels to Belize to offer her services to children in need

Dr. Marie Calabrese, a Mayfield Village resident, traveled in February to Belize City in Belize offering her professional skills to underprivileged children at St. Mary’s Primary School. Here, Calabrese poses with some of those children.(
Dr. Marie Calabrese

MAYFIELD HEIGHTS, Ohio — When dentist Dr. Marie Calabrese was completing her residency program at the Cleveland Clinic 20 years ago she spotted on the wall of the specialist with whom she was studying an article telling of doctors working abroad to help the underprivileged.

"I thought then that that’s what I wanted to do some day," she remembers today.

That "some day" has come to pass — twice — and Calabrese has felt the experience so rewarding that she is looking forward to traveling and offering her services once more.

Specifically, Calabrese has traveled, in 2016 and again in February of this year, to Belize City in Belize. Formerly known as British Honduras, and still a British commonwealth, Belize is located in Central America, along the Caribbean Sea. To the west of the city are jungles.

Many people in Belize speak English, while some speak Spanish. There are also people living there of Mayan heritage.

A graduate of the University of Kentucky, Calabrese, a few years ago, came across an old college friend, fellow dentist Dr. Jay McCaslin, who practices in Savannah, Ga. McCaslin is friends with Dr. Steve Acuff and his wife, Monti, who formed 25 years ago the program Project Smile.

McCaslin told Calabrese of his work with Project Smile in Belize City. The program focuses on preventative dentistry. Volunteer dentists and hygienists clean teeth, offer fluoride treatment, administer sealant, provide fillings and remove baby teeth from young people.

The Acuff’s church, Christ Episcopal Church in Savannah, had formed a relationship with St. Mary’s Primary School in Belize City, which has led volunteer dentists to travel to that city to provide free dental care once per year in the month of February.

On her most recent trip, Calabrese was one of two dentists to volunteer. She worked for three-and-a-half days during her week-long trip.

"Most people in Belize City are living day-to-day," Calabrese said. "There’s not a lot of wealth there. There are street vendors who will try to sell you things. You’ll see clothes drying on lines.

"A lot of their children have (tooth) decay. It’s from a combination of a lack of education about hygiene and their increased access to sweets. Their diets are consisting more and more of processed foods."

The volunteer dentists set up in a classroom at the older building that is home to St. Mary’s School and see students ages 4-14. In addition to St. Mary’s students, a few children from a neighboring school also receive care.

"We saw 275 kids this year," Calabrese said. Two years ago, she saw 175 young patients.

While seeing a dentist is not enjoyable to most people, aching teeth can make one more appreciative of their skills.

"One girl asked me if I was going to pull her aching tooth, which made me wonder how long she had been in pain that she was willing to come up to a stranger and hug me."

The youngsters, Calabrese said, are, for the most part, happy to see her and fellow volunteers. The dentists don’t usually see the children’s parents but, Calabrese said, "One mother thanked me and said she was grateful because to see a dentist (in Belize City) would be very expensive."

Calabrese didn’t head south alone. Making the trip with her were two hygienists from her office, Nicole Clevery and Heather Fields, and her administrative assistant Liz Rickrode.

"I was so proud of my team," Calabrese said. "They did such a great job."

Making the trip even better was that Calabrese’s brother, Chris Pawlowski, traveled from his New Jersey home to meet her in Belize.

Calabrese is thankful to Lee Buck, a representative of Patterson Dental, who donated $1,000 worth of dental supplies she purchased for the trip.

Calabrese and husband, Don, are parents of two children, Devan, 10, and Juliana, 7. Her practice is located in the Landerbrook Dental Professionals building, 5825 Landerbrook Drive.

When she returns in 2020, Calabrese is hoping to take along her son.

She encourages other dentists to volunteer and said that the trip makes one more appreciative of what one has in life.

"What we have here compared to some others around the world — I live in a relatively safe area and I know that I’m going to eat that day. Some people don’t have those things.

"It’s a good feeling to be able to use my skills to help people," she said. "I always try to live life with gratitude, but sometimes gratitude isn’t enough."

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