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SUNY Erie instructor lends expertise to health initiative in Uganda

Article by: Michael Farrell

WILLIAMSVILLE—Many Western New Yorkers pass the early days of spring shaking off the remains of winter or shuttling down to Florida.

Not Joan Ellison.

Last April, the SUNY Erie Community College Dental Hygiene instructor spent her season’s transition in Kasese, Uganda, utilizing her programmatic expertise to benefit underserved residents of the West Africa expanse in conjunction with the education and healthcare-focused Community Health & Education for Rural Africa. 

Over three days working with other staff members—including her husband, a retired Navy officer who’s been involved with the Ugandan-backed effort’s foundation for 12 years—Ellison provided basic screenings, dental health education, fluoride varnish applications, and recommendations for future treatment for approximately 70 patients, ranging in age from 18 months to 83 years old.

“Due to our screenings, several people had teeth extracted,” said Ellison, who’s been an adjunct clinical faculty member at SUNY Erie since 2013. “Other issues were either referred elsewhere, or handled right there if it was fairly minor.”

Working amid her Ugandan site’s conditions—without a full staff of experienced medical professionals, compressors to run dental equipment or a modernized treatment facility—was a challenging experience for Ellison, but also provided plenty of instructional material for her SUNY Erie students. She presented her trip’s moments to these students in October, detailing obscure findings and moments that enriched her both professionally and personally.

“People there are happy and faithful,” said Ellison. “They may have to walk a couple miles or more to get [to services], but they’re very respectful and grateful.”

In response, both students and faculty expressed interest in pursuing similar international missions, and bringing the training earned at SUNY Erie to communities in need, no matter how far outside the parameters of Western New York. As for Ellison, she’d like to return to Uganda and the mission of CHERA, but not for a while. In the meantime, she’ll appreciate and utilize the impact of a truly meaningful mission. 

“When we left, my husband asked me for three words for I felt about my experience,” she said. “Humbled, inspired and grateful.”

About the Community Health and Education for Rural Africa, Inc. (CHERA): The organization strives to improve the lives of those in Sub-Saharan Africa’s most impoverished communities by providing access to education and healthcare to orphans and other vulnerable children through enduring relationships with local leadership. The Rwenzori Region in Uganda is home to 15,000 to 20,000 children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. 

Many are living in families headed by siblings in their early teens. Supporting and guiding these young people until they are self-sufficient and able to join the community as contributing adults is essential for the future of the region. CHERA works with local leaders of the Kasese Community Health and Education Foundation (KCHEF) to provide healthcare and educational opportunities to at-risk children. For more information visit CHERA’s website at www.cherahealth.org, or find them on Facebook.

SUNY Erie Community College has met the needs of a diverse student body while contributing to the economic vitality of Western New York since 1946. As a member of the state’s SUNY system, the three-campus college provides flexible, affordable and accessible educational programs in an accommodating academic environment. Equipped with the knowledge of these programs, SUNY Erie’s faculty, staff and students strive to enrich their host communities through skill, service and partnership. For more information, visit www.ecc.edu or call (716) 851-1ECC.

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