CRYSTAL LAKE – With only weeks to go until graduating dental school, Ben Youel found himself in a land of flowing Pepsi.
The Crystal Lake native was eager to spend five weeks in Guatemala working in a dental clinic, but he quickly realized why oral hygiene is a struggle in the Central American country. Not only are most people unable to afford quality dental work but there also is almost no access to clean water.
Youel said he learned that Guatemalans must buy their drinking water, which is far more expensive than soda.
“A real problem is the amount of sugar they are exposed to,” Youel said. “Soda is cheap, and there are no sugar-free options. Tortillas are also a staple of their diet, and those carbs immediately degrade into sugars in their mouths.”
Despite the challenges, Youel put a brighter smile on the faces of 47 children – 45 of whom needed fillings – with no X-rays and a limited arsenal of dental tools. The five-week clinical from March to April was a dream come true for the 2005 Crystal Lake Central graduate, who jumped at the opportunity to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country.
While he gained valuable professional experience and satisfaction from helping a group of 4- to 8-year-olds, he also made lifelong memories. Youel said he was able to explore Mayan ruins, experience the Guatemalan Holy Week and visit Antigua Guatemala.
“One of my biggest regrets from my undergraduate career was not studying abroad,” Youel said. “I knew this would be an option, and I always wanted to do it. It was great all around.”
Although the 26-year-old just graduated from the University of Illinois-Chicago, he already has a lengthy résumé of using his professional skills for charitable causes. Before taking on the Guatemala assignment, Youel volunteered at Goldie’s Place in Chicago – a clinic that offers free dental services to the homeless.
He said his work in Chicago prepared him for what he would face at the Susanna Wesley School, and both experiences have instilled a passion for international clinical work.
Youel is set to begin a yearlong residency at the Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago on June 24, but he still plans to travel the world and fix problems one smile at a time when the opportunities arise.
“Our last day at the clinic, the niños came up to us and gave us hugs and cute little homemade cards,” Youel said. “When I had six kids wrapped around my neck, I knew this was something I wanted to do again.”