2016 Citizen of the Year
Whether pushing through a rough spot in an Ironman competition (she’s done eight, more on that later), or toughing it out while performing dentistry in the sub-Saharan heat of Tanzania, Dr. Loree Bolin, WSDA’s Citizen of the Year for 2016, uses a powerful mantra to get through any challenge: “Strength. Power. Focus. Go.”
Bolin, a retired Lake Stevens dentist, was nominated by peers and colleagues to receive the WSDA’s highest honor for her years of volunteer dental service. Since 2007, the intrepid world traveler, athlete, and dentist has volunteered her services on 13 relief trips to Haiti, the Philippines, Honduras, Uganda, and Tanzania while with Medical Relief International (MRI), and later to Nepal and Tanzania with the Health & Hope Foundation (HHF), which she created. In Tanzania, she works with communities in the Ngorongoro Crater (Maasai) and Mwanza.
Bolin volunteered with MRI from 2007 to 2014, going on healthcare missions and serving as the group’s medical director, while also initiating programs for in-country students to attend dental schools in the Philippines and Tanzania. She ultimately decided to strike out on her own. She says she loves foundation work because the need is great in developing countries and the people are magnificent. “I’m excited about this honor because it will open more opportunities for the people in Tanzania. They are such joyous, grateful people. They make do with what they’ve got and sing along the way, but given an opportunity they’ll take it and fly,” she says. “Each life we touch creates a legacy. Beyond meeting one person one time in a dental chair, it’s given us a chance to become a part of the community and introduce the people of Tanzania to those who are near and dear to me. It’s not just my legacy, it’s everyone’s. We’re all connected.”
Grit and determination
For Bolin, the gritty fieldwork is a natural fit. She explains, “The reason it was perfect was because all of the whistles and bells were stripped away. I loved the challenge of providing dental care out of a lawn chair propped up with sandbags, and making do with what we had. I like roughing it, and I like not having stuff. I think that’s what attracted me to it when I went on my first trip. I do better when I am in the moment and problem solving. I’ve always been an adventure seeker and done things the hard way.” Bolin is an endurance athlete, and at one point even considered becoming a PE teacher. Instead, she followed in her father’s footsteps (he graduated in the University of Washington’s first four-year class), and became the first daughter of a UWSoD graduate to attend the dental school.
She started running marathons in dental school and has now run a marathon on each of the seven continents. Eleven years ago Bolin completed her first Ironman competition. “It’s my meditative time,” she explains. “If I have a problem, I’ll take it on a run or a bike ride. That’s when I problem solve. I like the competition and the racing, and I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process. Starting at dawn, we swim 2½ miles, bike 112 miles, and finally run 26.2 miles. During the course of the day, all of your layers strip away, your ego is gone. You have good times and bad, ecstasy and despair. I had some years with injuries, but I have accepted the personal challenge of completing a race every year since I turned 50, and I’m 62 this year.” Bolin isn’t a casual competitor. She won her division in Brazil, which qualified her for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, where she placed 10th in the world in her division. That drive and tenacity carry over into her foundation work, and has helped make Health & Hope what it is today, just two short years after its formation.
Creating the Health & Hope Foundation
Bolin enjoyed her work with MRI, but began thinking about making a more lasting impact in a community. So after much careful thought, she created the Health & Hope Foundation in 2014, which is dedicated to improving the lives of widows and orphans in a small village within Mwanza. Additionally, HHF was proud to be the first NGO (non-governmental organization) to coordinate with local leadership to deliver medical, dental, and vision care to Maasai villagers within the Ngorogoro Crater. Bolin says, “I chose Tanzania because I had been to five different locations there with MRI, and in each and every case I had the same interpreters. They were from Mwanza, and both had created organizations that helped widows in their village, and they were connected with children’s education efforts, too. Given this established local base, I knew it would be a good place for me to really serve a population.” Bolin estimates that Health and Hope volunteers have 800 patient encounters every clinic week, but clarifies that patients will often have several visits between medical, dental, and vision resources the organization supplies.
Setting out on her own: helping the weakest
But why start a foundation, when so many others out there are doing similar work and have the infrastructure in place? Bolin explains, “While I respected the work of many groups out there, including MRI, I knew that I wanted to run things with a different focus, and I wanted to channel my energies very specifically. I also knew that while doing extractions in communities around the world was absolutely a vital thing, it wasn’t addressing the problem. After going on so many trips to different countries, I saw that the problems were identical, and that if we focused on prevention and education, dental caries could be substantially reduced.” Bolin, who loves performing surgeries on patients and understands that getting people out of pain is essential, says that the treat-and-leave model of care wasn’t comprehensive enough, and she wanted to do more. “I’ve taken out thousands of teeth, but I don’t feel it is where the person is best served. I wanted to pick a community, focus more on prevention and education than surgery, while working to make the community and its people healthier and more self-sufficient.”
As she points out, the need for adequate dental and medical care across the globe is mind-boggling and won’t soon be met. “When you’re in a developing country putting on a mobile clinic, there are hundreds in need,” she says. “If you let yourself think about that, you would go crazy. My goal is to help communities create leadership structure and maintain sustainable change.”
Bolin decided to target widows and orphans because in Africa, they’re the weakest and most vulnerable people, and have few advocates. As a woman, Bolin wanted to influence these forgotten lives for the better. Often, she explains, the widows are left to care for their grandchildren because the middle generation has been lost to AIDS and other illnesses. Bolin set out to help the community in key ways that included clean water, healthcare, education, women’s business development, and sports programs. Today, the foundation runs a school and myriad programs she set in motion.
After completing so many years of work around the globe, Bolin was well prepared for the logistics of bringing healthcare to remote areas. To that end she brings a phalanx of volunteers, including dentists, doctors, optometrists, carpenters, electricians, and “just regular folks” on each of her visits to the area, along with some 1,300 pounds of supplies in 24 containers. They carry mobile dental units, 600 pairs of glasses, antibiotics, painkillers, school supplies, and more. “Some say we do too much. But I don’t see how you can hope to have a holistic program without doing this much….and more,” says Bolin. “We’re community-based, and we’re taking care of the community.” In addition to her volunteer force, Bolin has boots on the ground in Mwanza. Her in-country leadership includes Jonathan Okoth, pastor and head teacher for the foundation school, along with other teachers, interpreters, and local doctors.
Each year when the foundation’s volunteers come to Mwanza, they close the school for a week and set up multiple clinics to address the needs of the local and neighboring populations. Bolin hopes the foundation will eventually “catch up” with the dental needs (and some of the medical needs) of the widows and orphans she sees yearly, but understands the magnitude of the health crisis in the surrounding area. “It doesn’t take that long to see improvement in dental health in these communities,” she says. “The core group of people that we see have fairly lovely teeth because they have toothbrushes, and because we’ve done prophys and fluorides on them. The scope of practice is still nearly 100 percent extractions, or at the very best 85 percent extractions, and we try to make some time for restorative work. That will change as we continue to go back to the same area every year, but in truth people travel great distances to receive help, so there will always be a population needing extractions.”
For the medical doctors, it can be an exercise in frustration because they can only perform nonsurgical procedures, and the enormity of the problem can be overwhelming. Bolin says, “Much of what they find necessitates ongoing treatment, which we cannot provide at this time. If a patient is diabetic or hypertensive, we don’t give medications because we can’t follow up with them, nor can we ensure that they will have a proper supply of the medications. It’s a tough decision to have to make.” Regardless, the presence of a U.S.-trained medical doctor on the team is vital, even if the scope of care is limited. Bolin says, “Just having the opportunity to talk with a U.S. doctor is very important to the locals. It can be bring great relief just to be heard. Some of what we see we can’t fix in a few weeks, and even when we refer them to a local hospital, they often don’t have the proper diagnostic equipment.”
In Mwanza the most common medical issues the volunteers will see are skin infections, GI worms, musculoskeletal problems from an injury, dietary issues related to malnutrition/dehydration, and drinking unclean water. Initially, many of the older women have strikingly similar ailments: burning eyes and sore backs, knees, shoulders, and hands. Bolin learned that they were all “crashing rock,” which is essentially serving as a human gravel-making machine. Using their hands, they gradually break large boulders down into gravel, which is then used in construction projects. It is backbreaking, common labor for the village’s widows. And while Bolin has been trying steadfastly to introduce them to alternative sustainable businesses that aren’t so punishing on the body, she says some of the women enjoy the work and continue to do it even after they learn new skills. “It’s social, too,” says Bolin. “They work and chat all day.”
HHF is proud to offer vision services for near- and far-sighted corrections, something not many in the area do. The foundation works with a Tanzanian optometrist with an uncanny knack for knowing what certain areas will need in terms of corrective lenses. “Our eye doctors make a determination and either dispense glasses or connect (people) with local resources, if it is something requiring more serious care. Last year HHF donors funded 29 follow-up cataract surgeries for diagnoses made by our ophthalmologist. Last year we distributed 395 pairs of glasses. This year we distributed 600 pairs,” says Bolin. Additionally, Health and Hope team members went to Texas with an organization called Visual Compassion to learn how to diagnose and provide glasses so that they can assist or fill in when the optometrist isn’t available.
Setting priorities: Clean water
Bolin found that the most pressing need for the entire community was an adequate and reliable source of safe drinking water and an inexpensive way to test what they had. Locals didn’t know how to test water for safety, and they lacked the resources to purify it in a manner that wasn’t ultimately harmful to the environment, like boiling, or didn’t taste foul, like traditional purification chemicals.
First, Bolin started searching for a cheap, easy way to test water to determine if it was safe to drink. Mwanza has plenty of water — it sits on the shore of Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile River connecting Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Although beautiful, the lake has been polluted by blast mining and sewage. Bolin won’t even swim in it, much less drink from it. And while the village does have pumped water available, it can be unreliable because of leaks in the pipes that allow biologic contaminants in. People in the small villages often boil their water to make it safe to drink, but firewood and coal are costly, and all of sub-Saharan Africa is becoming deforested from climate change, moving populations, and communities that burn wood for fire and to make coal. Reforestation efforts are just starting with the help of the government, but change is slow within the community. Bolin knew the key was finding inexpensive ways to test the water and alternatives to boiling and chemical purification of contaminated water. She and her cadre of volunteers teach solar water pasteurization, which adds another solution to the water contamination problem.
The MIT connection
Focusing her efforts on simple solutions for testing local drinking water led Bolin to MIT’s water engineering department, which had already developed such a kit. “Microbiology testing is generally very expensive. The individual tests that you can get online can cost $30 and require an incubator. MIT wanted to spearhead the assembly and distribution of the kits themselves, but didn’t have the manpower, so they asked if we would do it,” says Bolin. The kits, which test for E. coli and other contaminants, require a 24-hour “body heat” incubation period to test the water samples. Health & Hope sells each kit, which can do 25 tests, for $200 to other NGOs. Bolin takes the kits everywhere she goes in the developing world. Last year, HHF water test kits were used to check 220 water sites not only in Tanzania, but also in places like Siberia and Malawi by other NGOs.
Next up: Creating ways for women to flourish
Bolin knew the women in the community had drive and skills, but they needed a boost to take them beyond “rock crashing.” She says, “Some knew how to sew, others had poultry skills, and others sold dried fish. They lacked the seed money to get anything off the ground, however.” So in 2011, as she was ending her first visit to Mwanza, Bolin put her money where her mouth was and created a seed grant program with $1,000 of her own money. “I wanted to see what would happen if we invested a little bit and tried to help the women diversify their businesses. We hoped to improve their standard of living and create a way for them to get a little more food,” she says.The modest investment would later become the community’s microloan program.
Bolin split the $1,000, giving $500 to a group of women who chose to work independently because they mistrusted other women in the community, and $500 to women who worked together in groups of three to five, collaborating and helping one another. The second group attended business classes that were offered in the church every other week, learning principles like profit-and-loss theory, sharing, and working cooperatively. “We wanted ladies who were starting a poultry business to connect with ladies who were baking and needed eggs, and the ladies who were baking to connect with ladies making cereals, etc.,” says Bolin. “We wanted them to network, which they did, earning enough to put some money in their savings for the future. Today, that money is used to fund new women entering the program. It has become self-sustaining, which is more than I ever hoped for.”
Today, the Women’s Business Program has an elected leadership team that interviews women who are interested in joining the group. Each of the leaders has a number of programs they oversee, and all of the women are committed to the work of the group. Interestingly enough, the women who chose to work independently ended up with about $12 each, which they all spent. They saw the error of their ways first hand, and many of them later applied to join the business program.
Education: more than just the three Rs
Housed in what was once a chicken coop (“a very large chicken coop,” says Bolin, with a smile), the foundation’s Tumaini Tutor School serves many purposes. The first, of course, is education. The 120 students attend either full or part time; 85 percent also go to the government school. None of the students have fathers, and some have lost both of their parents and are being cared for by a guardian. The children, ages 4 to 17, are taught in half-day shifts and attend school six days a week. Small-group tutoring helps the students catch up. “We established this school because these kids were behind their peers because of their erratic ability to attend school,” explains Bolin. “For some it was because they lacked the money to pay the government school tuition and uniform costs. For others it was because their family was sick, or they were. Kids in Mwanza get malaria often, some kids are living with AIDS, and a lot of kids get waterborne illnesses, which is why clean drinking water is so important.” Tumaini means “hope” in Swahili, and the school has become a secure home base for the orphaned students. HHF’s school meal program has significantly improved the nutritional status of 25 of the most deprived students.
Health & Hope offers vocational bridge schooling for older students and young adults, which can help them get jobs in the community. Young men and women attend skill classes equally, and for many it’s the first time they’ve ever handled scissors or a hammer. In the carpentry class, they learn how to make Tippy Tap handwash stations using inexpensive materials. They stations provide a way for the village residents to wash their hands with clean water outside community latrines and cooking areas. [Editor’s Note: To view a video showing how to make a Tippy Tap handwash station, click here.]
In the sewing class, students learn how to sew and repair uniforms and make feminine hygiene kits, which can be sold to neighboring communities to help sustain the school. “The beautiful thing that has come out of that experience of making uniforms and the feminine hygiene kits is that we use it as a tool,” says Bolin. “When we distribute the kits in sexual education class, it’s a way to open a cultural conversation about sexual safety, which some girls have never had.”
All girls take an age-appropriate class. With the older girls, educators talk about all kinds of sexuality problems and field questions such as, “Can you get AIDS from having sex in the water?” or “Does water protect you?“ “We’ve helped to foster open conversations for the girls in the community, and the ladies as well,” says Bolin “especially those who are getting supplies for their granddaughters. We’re able to have candid conversations about sex and the methods they can use to decide if sex is right for them, and how to thwart unwanted sexual advances. Girls are generally reluctant to discuss these things.”
Health & Hope also tries to structure programming and opportunities at the school to create self-sufficiency. For instance, a refrigerator was added to cool the solar pasteurized water the students make because they can bottle and sell it to the locals. They make and repair uniforms to earn money while learning a skill. The foundation is working with other NGOs to add internet service to the school, not only for the children, but also for the community at large. Bolin explains, “Microsoft has a program called 4Africa that offers online programs. If we can get reliable internet service at the school, orphan student education can be offset by teaching English and computer skills to the community for a fee, which pays to keep the school running. It’s all about creating a self-sustaining environment.”
Education through sports
As an elite athlete, Bolin knows that sports can bring people together and teach much more than just the game or camaraderie. She figured if she had the girls in the school play net ball against the older women, it could become a break in the daily survival of life in Africa and promote cross-generational sharing. “When I first went there, I found that as a white woman, they weren’t necessarily open to talking with me about women’s issues. We found an entrance through sports, and opened up lines of communication between the younger girls and the women, some of whom were married with dowries of cattle, but they had lost their husbands and were forced to go it alone. They have life experience that the young girls don’t, and through sports they’re able to chat and share with these young orphan girls who lack mentors. One of the most alarming statistics is that 71 percent of all new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa occur in adolescent girls. Between the older women talking during games and our sex ed programming, we’re finding new ways to reach this most vulnerable age group. It’s opening so many fabulous surprises in such a grand fashion, and it’s helping to a level that wasn’t intended, but has turned out so magnificently.”
Similarly, the foundation has begun to reach out to the boys in school and during sports play, but there are other hurdles to conquer. “The interaction that we’ve seen foster between the girls and women through sports is something that we’re going to roll into the boys’ soccer program soon,” says Bolin. “We’re seeking a couple of younger men to work with and coach the boys. We found that with Tanzanian boys, you have to have the right person telling the story for it to be absorbed. We want and need someone who has lived the advice. It’s not enough to just tell the story. Educating while we’re building Tippy Taps has been great, but we need more opportunities for conversation, so we’ll use sports to deliver the message next.”
Bolin wants to keep expanding programs in Mwanza, and continue to work with other NGOs, specifically those in Washington, but she admits funding for a young foundation can be tough. She’s currently developing a “shoe library” for the Tumaini Tutor School students so that they can pass down their outgrown shoes and get a new pair in their size. Bolin says, “Shoes are so precious. Children are generally barefoot, contributing to the need to deworm our students every three to six months, depending on their age. Worms make it into the body through their feet and rob them of their nutrients.”
With her drive and determination, we know Bolin will continue to be successful with each and every additional service she brings to Mwanza and the people of Tanzania. We’re in awe of her dedication to those who have so little, and are proud to call her the 2016 Citizen of the Year.
Health & Hope Foundation: How you can help
Dr. Loree Bolin would like to continue to grow the number of orphaned Tumaini students sponsored by Washington residents to enable government school enrollment. Currently, there are 15, with many more deserving on the wait list.
Sponsorship can cover government school costs, the Tumaini School’s meal program, and other basic expenses. Bolin herself is sponsoring one former Tumaini student’s college education. For more information about any of these volunteer opportunities, please visit healthandhopefoundation.org.
Get the word out
Bolin says, “Even having our members know that the Health & Hope Foundation exists is a good start. We have a fantastic website that tells our story really beautifully, healthandhopefoundation.org.
Volunteer in Tanzania
“We can use volunteers for the clinics, regardless of whether they’re dentists or not. We’ve had everyone from 13-year-old to 72-year-old volunteers who were fabulous,” she says. “If you are a dentist, you really can help us. Dentists have a wealth of knowledge to share. Our next Tanzanian trip will be June 2017.”
Bolin says, “Donations are always wonderful because they allow us to get the things we need most, and usually for less money than you can. For instance, dental supplies are great, but we can get those from the major distributors for less than dentists can, so their donated dollars can go farther with us. That said, if you want to donate supplies, we’ll make sure they get used! I don’t like saying no to in-kind donations. I have a stockroom, and we always buy in bulk to save money.”
Volunteer at home
Bolin says, “We currently have about 40 volunteers working here in Washington with the foundation. We have both individuals and families involved in making washable feminine hygiene kits for delivery in Tanzania.”
Sponsor a child in school
“It’s a fabulous way to get involved, and it only costs about $350 for the entire year,” says Bolin. “That covers tuition, books, uniform, a small medical fund for them, and a food budget.
Join the Tumaini Pen Pal Team
“The kids write in longhand, and we scan the letters to email to their pen pals, which helps them practice English composition, handwriting, and some computer skills. They love getting and reading mail from overseas, too. It’s the best thing ever,” says Bolin.