Dr. Tashiba Nelson of Orangeburg said she was met with smiles and open arms soon after setting foot in the West African nation of Ghana.
A dentist with Kool Smiles in Orangeburg, Nelson and other clinical staff members recently returned from a mission trip where they spent the week of Sept. 8-14 delivering dental care to nearly 200 children and adults in the Accra and Kumasi regions of Ghana.
“Our initial welcome that we got to the center – that was huge for me because the kids ran up to the van and everybody wanted to hug you, to touch you, to say welcome," Nelson said.
“And you felt that when you got there.”
The team spent several days performing dental examinations, extractions, restorative procedures and cleanings while also educating children and adults about the importance of oral hygiene.
The trip was part of Kool Doctors Giving Back, a global outreach initiative that aims to bring quality, compassionate dental care to underserved communities at home and abroad.
“This was a great honor and privilege,” Nelson said. “Kool Smiles has been doing this for quite a few years.”
Before being selected, she had to go through the application process
“I was one of three doctors selected from probably over 50 applications. I was really excited. We probably prepared for months,” she said.
“Every year, they ... go to a different country. This year Ghana was selected, (and we) worked with the Touch A Life Care Center.”
Touch A Life is a global organization that focuses on developing creative ways to bring healing and empowerment to those who are suffering, exploited or at-risk around the world. In Ghana, the organization works to provide long-term care and rehabilitation for child survivors of forced labor.
“So a little over 100 people can be in the facility at a given time,” Nelson said. “And these children are children rescued off of Lake Volta out of child labor. A lot of them end up there because their parents sell their labor to fishermen.”
Touch A Life’s early efforts resulted in the Life Care Center in Kumasi.
“So we were going there to the center to provide care to the kids, and then once we were done with that, to the larger community," Nelson said.
Later, the team traveled to a school in Accra to provide “dental screenings, cleanings, fillings to some of those people there,” she said.
While at the center, one of the boys made up his mind that he would be Nelson’s personal assistant.
“At some point, he decided that he was working with me. If anyone called him away, he would hurry back to me,” she said.
“And after a while, he was so into the flow of what was going on that he could stop me and be like, ‘You skipped a step,’” Nelson said.
What stood out to her in Ghana was “the pride that they took in doing everything that they were doing, the pride and care that they took toward each other, just how responsive and grateful they were,” she said.
“Just looking at these kids, you couldn’t tell that they had suffered what they had suffered because they were just so full of joy and exuberant."
“As dentists, we’re so used to people being scared of us. But they were just so welcoming and open,” Nelson added.
Largely an English-speaking nation, Ghana has large differences between urban and rural areas, she said.
“There was variety. Even though we were headed to a rural area with incredible poverty, there was that dichotomy between progress, industry and development that was happening there,” she said.
A native of the Caribbean nation of Jamaica, Nelson said she felt a deep connection to Africa while she was there.
“This was my first time going to the continent. I was definitely thinking about that as a descendant returning from the diaspora and feeling that impact of just like, ‘I recognize you,’” she said.
“You just felt that connection so quickly, so easily, so effortlessly.”
The thing she will take away from the trip is that everyone is unique and deserving of love and help.
“The people that we met, the children that were there – everybody has a story,” Nelson said. “And if you get so bogged down into your personal thing, you really won’t realize your potential for helping others or making real impact.”