We spoke with Swiss dental hygienist Gabriella Schmidt-Corsitto about the work she does with her dental health NGO “Misheel Kids Foundation”. The Foundation was co-founded with professor Anuudari Erkhembaatar, who teaches at the Health Sciences University of Mongolia. Together with local dental practitioners, the Foundation provides dental education, hygiene and care to underprivileged children and families from the lowest income homes and orphanages in Mongolia.
- Please introduce yourself to our readers. How long have you been in Mongolia? Where were you before you came to Mongolia, and what where you doing there?
- I've been living in Mongolia since August 2013. I first came here with my husband, Klaus Schmidt Corsitto, who works for GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit). He arrived in Mongolia in 2009, and I followed a bit late on with our two kids. I'm a registered dental hygienist, and I qualified and practice in Switzerland. As a family we have lived in many different countries. I have continued to practice my profession as a dental hygienist in the countries that we moved to over the years.
- Do many people know a dental hygienist is a professional separate to a dentist?
- It is a profession that provides holistic oral health care, to teach and educate people on oral hygiene, including dietary education to promote the well-being of teeth, gums, and everything that is inside the mouth. This is on top of gum disease treatments and teeth cleaning. It is a stand-alone profession in Switzerland, and we get a professional degree at a higher education institute and license to practice. It differs in other countries as in some countries it is not officially accepted as a stand-alone profession. However, in practice, we can see lower dental problem rates in countries with professional dental hygienists. It is crucial to have zero dental problems to keep your whole body healthy.
- Does this mean that in your country, you have a lower rate of dental problems?
- Partly, yes. Firstly, everyone in the family is aware of tooth decay and protects their teeth well from dental diseases. Secondly, it is the insurance system as well. People with healthier teeth get a better discount rate for dental treatment from their insurance.
- Was the government advised by those in the dental profession?
- How can we follow good dental hygiene practices?
- Well, it starts with cleaning your teeth properly. Everyone brushes their teeth in the morning and at the end of the day before going to bed. Plus, if it's necessary, you can clean your teeth after eating or drinking. For example, if you must drink soft drinks like coca cola, clean your teeth afterwards. That is a must. Also, nutritional education is very important and will make a huge difference.
- What is your opinion about Mongolians' oral hygiene? Do you think we take good care of our teeth?
- Unfortunately, I have seen that in general it is not good. High rates of cavities and other dental disease prove this.
- Does it mean that there is a lack of dental hygiene knowledge?
- Not exactly a lack of knowledge. People are aware that they should take care of their teeth. The key part is following up on the knowledge and implementing a dental hygiene practice. If you do not act on the knowledge, only knowing about things is not very helpful. This is the worst habit to have, people know what to do, but don’t act on their knowledge.
- Let's talk about the Misheel Kids Foundation. Please explain what the Foundation does.
- Very briefly, we teach and educate about oral hygiene. To explain how we do this I will need to tell you a very short story.
In 1988, I went to Gabon, Africa, to work. After being well introduced to the local lifestyle and conditions, I decided to start a mobile dental clinic to teach about oral hygiene and deliver dental treatment. At that time, I met my husband and we got married. He was working in the same country as a forest engineer. During this time we had our two kids. Then my husband's work took us to Cameroon. Our kids started kindergarten there. Here I realized that almost every child in that kindergarten was suffering from toothache as they had no oral hygiene knowledge. Someone had to teach them how to keep their teeth healthy and how to prevent tooth decay. As a professional dentist, I started to volunteer at the kindergarten and started to teach the children and their families. Since then, wherever our family was living, I taught oral hygiene and dental education to underprivileged communities. It's been 25 years now. After working in many other African countries, my husband was appointed to work in Asia for the first time, and the country happened to be Mongolia. And that is the reason I am here today.
After consulting with Anudari Erkhembaatar, who was my co-teacher at that time, together we decided to create "Misheel Kids Foundation” based on my volunteering experiences, a non-profit organization focused on children living in orphanages and children from the lowest-income families. "Misheel" means a smile in Mongolian. The initiator and founder is Professor Anuudari. I have been appointed as CEO. We started to operate in 2015 and so far we have treated more than 1600 children and adults.
- As this is a foundation, you must raise money to run the organization, is that right?
- Yes. We try, but it is not as successful as we could wish, to be honest. We’ve been raising funds from our close friends and family members who understand and support our work, as well as companies from Ulaanbaatar too. We spend the funds as efficiently as possible.
Our first-class was in 2014 for the students from the Sciences University of Mongolia. By that time, the University had begun running a class for professional dentists. The University had opened up the class for the first time to prepare professionals by bringing in international practitioners. The program contained mainly theory lessons. Thus, I brought some practical equipment and materials from Germany and left them at the university for their future use. My professional teaching is not only to raise awareness about oral hygiene, but to make students realize and practice dental hygiene actions through teaching what is dental hygiene, why do you have to keep your mouth and teeth clean, why do you have tooth decay, and what is the reason behind toothache and how to prevent it. Having only academic knowledge is not sufficient to make students have a holistic and full understanding. Thus, as field work for the dental students we went to the Ulaanbaatar City Orphanage to advise children of different ages. When we got there, we realized that there was a much bigger problem. We found children suffering from toothache in at least 10 teeth. These children have no parents to take care of them and their teachers could only teach what they were supposed to, as they are very much loaded with other duties. The hygiene issues, especially dental hygiene issues, were abandoned. Imagine, you have a terrible toothache, but you have no choice but try to sleep at night. That was the reality amongst the children in the orphanages. Professor Anuudari and I decided to help them. In order to help we needed to form an organization, and that is the starting point of Misheel Kids Foundation. We started to teach the children how to clean their teeth properly. They learnt very fast. But then they said, "Gaby, I have been cleaning my teeth very well. But they still hurt". Of course, the teeth have cavities and there is gum disease and more. The pain wouldn't go away without proper treatment.
In Ulaanbaatar, currently, we are supporting 7 orphanages and daycare centers. We have visited all of them. Thus, we had to organize dental treatment for all the centers. Our solution was to connect local dental clinics with the orphanages. Dentists visit the orphanages and carry out the check-ups. After the check-up, they send us the list of children's names and a list of the required treatment per child. As well as how much each treatment would cost, and the total cost. Then we check our funds and distribute the money to the dental clinics accordingly. When we have enough donations, it's the happiest time because we can treat several children's teeth at the same time. If we don't have enough money, the children need to wait until the next donation.
The dental clinics support this action by giving us 10-20% discount. The treatments become quite expensive sometimes because if one tooth has gone bad, usually between 4 and 12 teeth are also becoming unhealthy and require treatment.
- Can you tell us how much it costs per child's treatment?
- The average amount is 300,000 MNT. Lately, when people donate money, they would say "I will pay for one child’s treatment" or ask "If I donate 1 million MNT, how many children can this money treat?". So having this average amount helps people to estimate how much they are contributing. Of course, people want to know how much help they are giving, and that is necessary.
- Is it usually individual people who donate?
- Foreign-invested companies donate as well. The very first donation came from Wagner Asia LLC. Last year we even received 30 million tugriks from the company Euro Khan.
The State Orphanage has on average 120 children. At the orphanages and the Daycare centers, children come and go. The children are frequently changing. Those who have received treatment leave the centers, and there are always new children being entered into the system with tooth decay. Thus, it is hard to say "Okay, now we have treated everyone" because it is impossible, and they need constant check-ups and treatment. This is why I believe the approach that we took, in building a permanent connection between the orphanages and the dental clinics was good.
- It sounds as though the orphanages became something similar to a dental clinic for the children.
- Almost like that.
- Your project also provides income for the dental clinics too.
- Exactly. It is helpful for everyone.
Our organization takes care of the dental hygiene of children at the daycare centers in the ger districts too. Here, the children from families who came to reside in the city from the countryside are provided with extra care and education. We also work with children in protection who are temporarily living at the Anti-Abuse Center. In addition to the work we do in Ulaanbaatar, we go to the countryside, to the most remote areas as well. Having healthy teeth is not about physically looking good. For both children and adults, those who have healthy teeth can smile a little wider, be more confident in themselves, and live more satisfied lives. There are many other programs and projects in Mongolia too. However, there are not many dealing with dental hygiene issues.
That is why I wish for this project that we have started to be known by many people in Mongolia, both adults and children. Although our organizational capacity and human resources are limited, we have helped more than 1600 children and people since 2015, as a result of continuous hard work. The main equipment we use when doing procedures in remote areas was donated by the German Embassy in Mongolia. When we go to the countryside, we take our own equipment, between 2 and 4 dentists, drivers, and a cook.
- What is the response from the local people?
- They are very appreciative of what we do. They provide accommodation for us, and we come and do check-ups and will provide necessary treatments for free. Also, we teach them dental hygiene as they should keep their teeth healthy after the treatment.
- It seems like you are very passionate about your job
- Yes, we are. That is why we are trying our best to raise funds for the project, rather than waiting for someone to donate. During the summer, we organize horse trekking trips in Mongolia, working together with "Saraa's Horse Trek Mongolia" a local tour company, by inviting tourists from all over the world. 20% of all the income on these treks goes towards the foundation’s operations.
Next year, the longest horse trekking trip "The Great Mongolian Ride" is going to happen; we will travel from the western most point of Mongolia to the eastern most point of the country, over 3100 km. The participants are all eager for the trek. It was supposed to happen this year, but unfortunately, the whole world has faced a pandemic and it had to be postponed till next year. All the participants are excitedly waiting for next summer and getting themselves prepared.
- You are a very dedicated person. I'm impressed. So this long-distance horse trek is going to happen only one time?
- Yes. This trek will be amazing for sure. However, it comes with some potential risks as well. What I am trying to say is, this is not for everyone. I am passionate about horse riding, and I am very experienced in traveling. The idea is to have a great trip with people who have the same passion as me, and most importantly to contribute to the Foundation at the same time. Traveling across Mongolia on horseback is for those "crazy people" just like me who believe adventure is the spice of life.
- Thank you very much for sharing all this information and I wish you good luck for the trip to create more beautiful smiles on many children's faces!