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Driven to Serve in Appalachia

Published 06/21/2017 by Global Communities

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Long before Wrenn Turpin married our founder, Dr. Jim Turpin, she was a rebel with a cause in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee. Learn more about an important piece of Project Concern International’s early history in this #WaybackWednesday Q&A.

How did you first learn about what was originally known as “Project Concern”?

In 1973, I was watching Johnny Carson while I was a dental hygienist in Houston, Texas. I was looking to make a career move and wanted to do some sort of volunteer work between jobs. Carson’s guest that evening was Dr. Jim Turpin. He spoke about “people helping people,” and I was inspired by the work his organization was doing in the U.S. and throughout the world. … I was a bit of a “rebel” and also involved in the Civil Rights Movement, so leaving a very comfortable job with an excellent salary to move to Tennessee and live in a trailer wasn’t hard for friends to understand.

When did you get involved with the organization?

I wrote to three organizations–CARE, Peace Corps and Project Concern—to see if they might need a dental hygienist/dental health educator. The only one that needed a hygienist was Project Concern in the Appalachian Mountains. … I lived about 3 hours away, but I knew the people of Appalachia. I knew about the high-sugar diets, lack of dental education and no or poor care, so that actually made the situation better for me. I also understood some of the colloquialisms that other might not. These were “my people” and it was a blessing to attempt to help in that culture.

Were you a volunteer or on staff?

A bit of both. I had a stipend of $200 a month and had a furnished trailer on site, including water and electricity. My friend and roommate, also a hygienist, volunteered as well. There was a camp director, two nurses, a physician who ended up being my future husband, an elderly dentist and his wife. We were left very much on our own to develop a program or way to help, but we used our imagination to find a way.

Wrenn Turpin (right) worked as a dental hygienist and educator for Project Concern’s Appalachia program in 1973. She tried to ease the fears of apprehensive patients by decorating the chair with clown accessories and wearing a red gingham smock instead of a sterile white uniform.

What was your role?

My role was not defined, but it developed into being more of a dental educator than just a hygienist. We took our dental van to five different elementary schools in these communities: Hanging Limb, Wilder, Davis, Byrdstown, Pine Haven and Deer Lodge.

We would welcome the kids onto the van. Some were very apprehensive, having had no dental experience previously. White uniforms were a bit intimidating, so we made red-and-white gingham smocks to wear to relieve this concern. After they were inside, we asked them if they wanted to wear a clown hat while we cleaned their teeth and did fluoride treatments. Then, we gave them a “Diddy Bag.” A group of Jaycettes (women Jaycees) in Wisconsin would take two washcloths, sew them together on three sides and then tie them together with shoestrings. Inside was a bar of soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste. The kids were excited about this present as many had no toothbrush and minimum self-hygiene items. These bags arrived by the hundreds for us to distribute, both from the van or when we went to the schools to talk about toothbrushing.

Why was this work important to you?

I grew up in Appalachia, in Western North Carolina, with many of the same problems in the Tennessee programs. My mother was the youngest of ten children and my father was the oldest of eight. My paternal grandparents didn’t get indoor plumbing until the 1960s and I grew up visiting them, using the outhouse and hand pumping water to drink. They had no electricity and cooled the freshly churned butter in a spring beside the house with cold mountain water. They were such good people and always very independent. I wanted more for them, but they were happy regardless. My grandmother was half Cherokee and suffered such discrimination. She didn’t read or write until she was a young adult, but she was the best example of a strong woman that any granddaughter could have. I took all of the memories of her with me and hoped that I could help the dental situation for a few children. … I saw myself in these kids. I had little or no dental work and lots of cavities. I remember the pain of abscess teeth and extractions with little or no anesthesia. Years of a high-sugar, carbohydrate diet. I don’t think my parents ever understood the causes of dental problems.

Any memory that stands out from your time working with Project Concern?

[su_quote]The brakes on the dental van didn’t work! You could press them and feel the metal against metal. I was told there “wasn’t money” to fix them. I was quite fearful of driving up and down the mountains with curves and no brakes. A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see the new van PCI is using to provide health services and education for vulnerable populations in San Diego. While we were there, several PCI folks who knew my story wanted me to check the brakes on this one! It’s a great way to “go to the people” when they can’t come to you – then and now.

Project Concern’s Appalachia program opened in Byrdstown, Tennessee, in 1969. At the time, the town had been without a doctor for almost a decade and had not had a dentist on site for 63 years. Dr. Turpin and his staff provided medical and dental care to people in the surrounding hill country through a clinic and mobile unit that covered four counties in the impoverished region. Project Concern (now PCI) also had programs in South Vietnam, Tijuana, Mexico, and Hong Kong.