Service-Learning and the Rewards of a Mission Trip

Service-Learning and the Rewards of a Mission Trip

Maureen A. Ohland, D.D.S., M.S.*:


The people you find are the real sources of hope on a mission trip

Prih-veet!      Hello!

Do-brih-dehn? How are you?

Spaseba!                 Thanks!

Bood laska!    You’re welcome!

These few Ukraine words allowed Dr. George Posavad’s dental team to communicate during the two-week trips they take every year to the Ukraine. The team has recently returned from their twentieth mission trip to provide dental care to three orphanages. The collaborative effort with the Shepherd’s Foundation under which they work has led to development of a family center, the formation of solid relationships with orphanages for sustainable programming, and the introduction of woodturning as a craft for the children to learn. As well, for the past two years dental hygiene students from a community college have participated in the mission trip as a credentialed service-learning** experience.

Setting the Stage

Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe and was once considered the “bread basket” nation. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, and their declaration of independence in 1991 have challenged this status, leaving the nation in an economic crisis with high unemployment and the government burdened with an extremely limited budget to address economic and social issues. Today in the Ukraine there are approximately 72,000 “social orphans” residing in institutional settings. The orphan crisis is due primarily to parental unemployment and their subsequent inability to provide for their children. Most orphanages house 120 to150 students and provide them with medical care, education, and food at a cost of fifty cents a day per child. Medications are either not available or are far too expensive for the orphanages to obtain, textbooks are out of date, and food sources vary depending upon the season and availability. Dental care is not part of the orphan life.


The economic conditions in the Ukraine leave few options for orphans following "dismissal" at age 16.


Given this history, and following numerous meetings, the current year’s team members prepare themselves for the Ukraine experience. Gifts for orphans, translators, and families are collected. Donated dental supplies are packed.  Following a lengthy airline flight with a stop in Amsterdam, the team regroups in Kiev to move supplies and dental equipment from storage onto a coach bus that will provide the transportation for the upcoming two weeks.

At each orphanage the team unloads the compressor, five portable dental units with lights and stools, miles of electrical cord, dental supplies, and sets up in the gymnasium for two to three days of restorative dental work. Meanwhile, the remaining team members and translators visit the classrooms to provide health and religious education. At the conclusion of dental treatment at each orphanage, a farewell program prepared by the orphans is presented to the teams and younger school children. Dancing, singing, and drama performances are followed by the team giving the orphans hats, mittens, socks, quilts, stuffed toys, toiletry bags, and Ukraine bibles. Addresses, photos, and hugs are exchanged by all as the team says goodbye for another year.


The face of the gentleman at right may suggest a lifetime of hardship, but he has lived to see the promise of steps such as the arrival of teachers of woodturning to help establish new commercial possibilities.


Service-learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates community service with academic study and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. For the dental hygiene students earning service-learning credit, the experience is tracked in their reflective journals. Upon their return, the students are expected to present a photo journal detailing their personal, professional, and cultural growth. This is an excellent method of demonstrating to other students and faculty the dental conditions of the Ukraine orphans and the daily life of Ukraine citizens. It also illustrates the personal growth of the participants. The author served as the faculty advisor for the students on the Ukraine mission trips.

Student Reflections

“It is inevitable that at some point in our lives we want new cars and designer jeans. This trip made me realize I have something priceless! I have the love and affection of family and friends. The orphans do not have new clothes or nice toys, but they seem okay with that. The one thing they want is human touch! Through my visit, the children repeatedly flocked to us and wanted hugs and attention. This trip has opened my eyes and made me appreciate how fortunate I am!”


“One of my best moments was when we took Polaroid photos of the orphans individually. Although they loved seeing themselves on the digital camera, when they had a physical picture to hold and keep they smiled so big!  It was then I realized they [literally] have nothing, and a simple gesture can mean so much to them…


“The trip I took to the Ukraine definitely helped me grow personally. I learned from the language barriers about challenges. I learned to speak slower with the translators and use more non-verbal communication through hand and facial expressions. The translators were invaluable; they helped to calm the children and informed them about our procedure. The relationships I developed with the translators are part of the experience that will never be forgotten.”

– Vanessa

“I was able to use my skills in restorative functions with the local Ukraine dentist. There were materials he had never used before, and I was able to place the restoration with his assistance. He repeatedly thanked me for this experience, and I felt confident that this was a good use of my restorative skills.”

– Amanda

“I learned so many things about the Ukrainian culture, but the most important thing I now understand is that these people live day to day for survival. The people work hard to raise animals and vegetables for their own food. This trip made me realize how much I take for granted; restrooms, drinking and bathing water, and food. Eating pea salad and some type of hot dog for breakfast with a shot of espresso coffee was incredible.”



All who believe in close encounters of the best kind, raise your hands.

Rewards All Around

A bonus for the orphans has been the inclusion of a woodturner/woodturning teacher on the most recent mission trips. Jim Sannerud has been sponsored by the American Association of Woodturners (AAW) to supply the orphanages with lathes and instruct the children in basic woodturning techniques. The idea has been to teach a skill that the older orphans may use when they are dismissed to the world at age 16 with a very limited future ahead of them. This year’s follow-up trip allowed Jim to reinforce the skills and educate the students on traditional Ukraine bowl turning.

In addition to the dental and educational mission, a visit to a senior home is included each year. Very
few of these government supported homes exist in the Ukraine. Each home houses approximately 25 residents who have no family to care for them. The team hands out photos from previous years that the seniors pin to their bulletin boards above their beds. Each resident also receives a gift, and the team entertains them with song.

As well, on Sunday a “sister” church is visited for service and a meal with the congregation. This is the best place to eat a really good borscht! Following the service, the team separates into small groups to visit various family homes. Through an interpreter, each team member is allowed to share family photos and answer questions about life in America. Every team member has time to debrief about these experiences on the bus and at evening meals.

Dr. George Posavad and his wife Verene plan to continue these mission trips every April, and they welcome new dental volunteers. Throughout the years, the restorative teams have treated an average of 250 to 300 children each trip at the three orphanages. The need for extractions has lessened, and the orphans willingly accept dental treatment. Serge, the Ukraine dentist who joins the team, appreciates the availability of anesthetic and an assistant. The orphanage buildings and grounds have improved, the relationships with the directors have solidified, and the visits have been eagerly anticipated by everyone involved. Jim Sannerud will be returning this fall to the Cherkassy region of Ukraine to set up a collaborative agreement with a technical school offering woodturning. Lastly, when students are asked about participating in another service-learning mission trip, their answer is an emphatic YES! Just say when and where!

This trip has confirmed for this author an ancient Chinese proverb: I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.


* Maureen A. Ohland is a 1988 graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry and received her M.S. degree in 2007. She currently is an adjunct associate professor at the School of Dentistry and tries to travel on a dental mission trip every two years.

**Service-learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates community service with academic study and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.