Zoe Sullivan polished the teeth of orphans and village children. She held their hands when fear of dental care threatened to overwhelm them. She held the spit bucket. She met once-forsaken children whose exuberant happiness touched and impressed her.
Sullivan, 18, traveled in December to Ghana with a group organized by Montana Dental Outreach Teams, based in Sheridan. The senior at Butte Central High School had never ventured overseas, and her first trip abroad focused on service.
The team members from Montana flew out of Salt Lake City on Christmas Eve. After a roughly 10-hour flight, they landed in Amsterdam. The next flight took them to Accra, Ghana, where they arrived on Christmas Day.
Eventually, after travel challenges that included canceled flights due to windborne sand, the team arrived at the Nazareth Home for God's Children, an orphanage run in the village of Sang by Sister Stan Terese M. Mumuni and the Marian Sisters of Eucharistic Love.
The orphanage takes in children whose lives were in jeopardy because of the circumstances of their births in rural northern Ghana, where poverty, illiteracy, and long-standing fears could threaten a child's life.
"One of the most commonly held traditional beliefs of this area is that a child who is born with any physical deformity or disability, and also twins, are automatically 'spirit children' — children who are bad omens for the family and the community at large," the orphanage's website explains.
"These children are traditionally killed," it says.
Yet Zoe Sullivan was awed by the joy that seemed to emanate from the orphans, a happiness she attributed to the devoted care they received at the Nazareth Home for God's Children.
"The kids in Ghana were loving toward us even though we were strangers to them," Sullivan said, a reaction that led her to conclude she ought to be more loving in her interactions with others and not just with friends and family.
"These kids brightened my day each time we would go to see them," Sullivan said. "I wish in America we could all show each other the love they showed the dental team and me."
Dr. Tom Bartoletti, a dentist based in Sheridan, refers to the Montana Dental Outreach Teams expeditions as "outreaches." He said he learned that describing the altruistic journeys as "missions" sometimes stirred misconceptions that the work sprang from a religious predilection or had a religious agenda.
He founded the nonprofit Montana Dental Outreach Teams in 2004. There have been 27 outreaches to date, he said. The first traveled to Ukraine, followed by an outreach to Moldova in 2005 and Serbia and Montenegro in 2006.
In the years since, Bartoletti has organized and staffed dental expeditions to countries that have included Honduras, Haiti, Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Argentina, Uganda, Jamaica, and Ghana.
He has taken teams to orphanages housing what he described as "throwaway kids" to poverty-stricken villages and neglected native communities and to refugee settlement camps where many people have never seen a toothbrush.
The outreach teams typically include two dentists, two dental hygienists, and about 10 students – typically college students. They clean teeth, fill cavities, extract teeth, and provide other dental care. Sometimes, dental supply companies donate provisions. More often, the dental tools, amalgam for fillings, and other materials come from Bartoletti's office.
He emphasizes that mentoring young people, opening their eyes to living conditions in nations considered to be Third World countries, is a key component of Montana Dental Outreach.
The college students who accompany the outreaches must care about humanity, he said. They must be flexible, because something almost always goes awry during expeditions in developing countries. They must raise money to pay for their air fares.
The air fare to Ghana totaled about $2,800.
Most of all, he said, the students must be willing to return to the United States "with a degree in compassion."
Bartoletti decided last year to expand the opportunity to travel with the team to Ghana to high school students.
Zoe Sullivan knew the Bartoletti family because she had helped care for Tom's elderly mother for a time and because she and her younger sister, Sophie, work part time for Dr. Mike Bartoletti, a dentist in Butte who is Tom's brother.
Tom Bartoletti invited Harley Sprinkle, 17, a senior at Sheridan High School, after hearing good things about the teen.
Like Sullivan, Sprinkle had never traveled overseas. And, like Sullivan, she was deeply impressed by the lively spirit of the orphans she met.
"As soon as they'd see you, they'd just run up and give you a hug," she said. "They were just the sweetest kids I'd ever met."
Sprinkle said the experience in Ghana helped refine her plans for a future career. Once focused on studying forensic science, Sprinkle said now she hopes to study nursing at Montana Tech.
"I learned how much I enjoy working with people and helping people," she said.
Sullivan plans to study speech pathology in college.
The mission statement for Montana Dental Outreach Teams says mentoring students is central to its success. The statement reads: "We seek to foster and discover the joy of helping, giving and sharing with those in need. Through volunteering and serving, we can find meaning in our lives."
Bartoletti said the teams always work hard, typically seeing hundreds of patients in just a few days.
Sullivan said days at the orphanage began at 6 a.m. with church at 6:30 and then breakfast before the team began seeing patients, including children and adults from the village.
Some of the children were afraid of the dental treatment, and if their fear was too great, she said, "We didn't push it."
On the eve of the outreach to Ghana, Tom Bartoletti, who is in his early 60s, suffered a stroke that precluded his participation. But the expedition continued, led by his son-in-law Gaspar Tognetti. A dentist Bartoletti knew in Ghana stepped in to help. The team from Montana included dental hygienist Robin Still and dental assistant Rebekah Norton. Frannie Driscoll Bartoletti, a 1976 graduate of Butte Central High School, joined the outreach team from California.
In the wake of his stroke, Tom Bartoletti plans to continue organizing and participating in the dental expeditions, but not as a dentist.
Sullivan's parents, Brian and Shannon Sullivan of Butte, said they believe their daughter's trip to Ghana provided an important perspective on the relative wealth and privilege of young people in the U.S.
"Traveling to an orphanage where the kids have worn, used clothing; limited doctor availability; and limited technology is an eye-opener," Brian Sullivan said.
His daughter demonstrated poise from the beginning of the expedition, he said.
"Zoe did not know anybody when I dropped her off that morning," he said. "So, she was able to travel with a group of strangers. I was not worried because I knew she was in good hands and that she can make friends easily. Now, she has a group of life-long friends."
And memories: Sullivan's homecoming on Jan. 1 was accompanied by many.
One boy from the orphanage, who was probably 5 or 6 years old, Sullivan said, learned her name early on and developed with her a special attachment that became especially evident as the dental team packed up to leave.
"He asked, 'Do you promise that when you come back we will be best friends?'" Sullivan recalled.
She said the boy's question brought tears to her eyes.
"I would go back in a heartbeat," she said.