Brushing your teeth with a stick and salt is almost impossible to imagine, but that’s exactly what kids were doing when Glenwood Springs resident Annie Zancanella arrived in Tanzania last fall.
“Most of the students didn’t own tooth brushes,” Zancanella said after her return from visiting and teaching at a school in Arusha, Tanzania.
Zancanella spent five and a half months in Africa volunteering in local schools and orphanages with the intent of working in child care, but soon discovered a bigger need.
She quickly became known by the African children that she taught as the “Tanzanian Tooth Fairy.”
“I thought I was going to go and help out and teach,” Zancanella said. “Then I realized what a valuable source I was for the dental knowledge that I had from all the years working in the field. It would be a waste for me not to use that knowledge while I was there.”
Her dental career began in 2006, when she began working at All Kids Dental in Glenwood Springs. Since then, Zancanella’s love and interests in dental education and helping children have only grown.
“I loved the pediatric side of it,” said Zancanella. “I always had a connection with the kids. The doctor was always like, ‘You’re the children whisperer.’”
After her first day in a Tanzanian school last fall volunteering with child care, Zancanella was asked by the principal to examine 150 children. She quickly found that their oral hygiene was in a terrible state.
It wasn’t long before she began traveling to other schools in the area to spend a day with each class, teaching them about their health and hygiene needs.
“I realized that I needed to educate, starting at the younger ages before their adult teeth came in,” said Zancanella. “I would teach them the basics of brushing, supply them with a toothbrush, toothpaste and floss, make fun games for the younger kids, sing songs and just help teach them.”
expanding the mission
Soon after her discovery, Zancanella started her own program to begin bringing oral hygiene to the children in the schools and orphanages of Tanzania.
She recruited other volunteers with various expertise, including doctors, nurses and other oral hygienists from Canada, Australia, Pakistan and Egypt.
She also started working with the Imara Ministry Foundation (IMF), a Christian organization aiming to strengthen the church. One of its main focuses is to support women with HIV, working to empower them and teach them valuable skills in order to support their households.
With IMF members and fellow volunteers in the medical fields, Zancanella began traveling to nearby villages to help the residents that were in need of health education and diagnosis.
“We got together and went out there and realized how desperate these people are for some kind of medical help,” Zancanella said. “Each week we would go out into these remote places and more and more people were showing up at these little huts, traveling for hours to come and see us.”
return trip planned
Since she returned from Tanzania in December, Zancanella has been working seven days and 68 hours a week to raise the necessary money for her to continue her work and program in Africa. She plans to travel back at the end of August.
“I came home and I was more motivated than ever to get back to Africa,” she said. “I just want to get back there and help. I have a feeling for the next few years that’s what I’m going to be doing — going for a chunk of time and then coming back and just working, working, working to go again.”
During her initial visit, Zancanella said many people sent her packages for her program, which proved to be difficult, time consuming and costly.
She said the best way to support her program is by donating so that she can use the funds to purchase supplies while in Africa.
Anyone wishing to contribute to Zancanella’s program can visit www.gofundme.com/f/tanzanian-tooth-fairy
One of the most important components of her organization is it’s mobilization. Her mobile program is called “Arusha’s Mobile Medical and Dental Outreach, in Cooperation with IMF.”
When the demand became apparent in other villages for Zancanella and her fellow medical volunteers, the most important component of the program was initially finding an appropriate vehicle to navigate the African terrain.
“We spent a lot of time making sure that the mobile program had a good vehicle to help facilitate us out there,” she said.
Although there was a significant language barrier, Zancanella worked with the children and other local doctors to bridge this gap. She even began learning some Swahili and teaching the Africans some English at the same time.
The language difference was especially difficult when her group of volunteers traveled to the remote villages to treat people.
“We got translators and local doctors that went with us each time so we could also understand,” Zancanella said. “In Africa, a lot of medicines are called different things and we don’t know a lot of the illnesses. We’re not trained in Malaria and Typhoid and stuff that we don’t have here in the United States.”
For Zancanella, her trips to Africa are about more than just the dental and medical work that she does for the locals.
“For me, it’s the love of the people,” she said. “The Africans totally embrace you.”
Throughout her first trip, Zancanella was surprised by the level of kindness that she was shown.
“You walk down the streets there and they come running up to you,” she said. “They’re hugging you and hanging off of you, and you walk a few blocks with kids holding your hands, then they trickle off back to their houses.”
Although Zancanella is a Glenwood Springs native, she found a new home that she is excited to return to in the villages of Tanzania.
“It feels like you have this gigantic family,” she said. “I’ve never been in a culture where I’ve felt so loved.”
Since 2009, Zancanella has had her own battles to fight, struggling on and off with cancer in five of her organs. Throughout her chemotherapy, radiation, experimental trial treatments and relapses, she has tried to focus on the bright spots in her life.
“It’s really helped form who I am and change me in the best possible ways,” said Zancanella. “It’s strange to say that such a horrible illness is such a blessing, but it is.”
Zancanella sees her cancer as a source of inspiration that pushes her to remember the terrible circumstances that many others face.
“Throughout my time, I’ve tried to do things to try to help bring people peace or comfort in some way,” she said. “For me, there are so many people in the world that have it so much worse, and what I have is minuscule compared to others.”
Her volunteer trip served to bring a newfound purpose to Zancanella’s life in the wake of her rocky health.
“I want to do good for the rest of my days,” she said. “It’s so fulfilling. I get so much out of it and others get a lot out of it. I wanted to do something truly good in life.”
Zancanella said her parents, Buzz and Gracie Zancanella, who have since passed, set a good example for her from a young age. She remembers them as very involved in the local community, never refusing to help a neighbor in need.
“They instilled that in me to always treat people the way that you wish to be treated,” she said. “I want my parents to look down and be proud of what I do.”
Savannah Kelley of Glenwood Springs is a freelance writer and student at the University of Denver.