By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
Dr. Joel Egnater is a full-time dentist, a full-time student, and the founder of a new organization that will provide dental care to poor and HIV-infected people in South Africa.
Egnater’s passion for the people of South Africa began with a trip in 1993, when he went on safari for vacation.
“The countries of the southern part of Africa have an optimism that has disappeared, I think, in a lot of ways from the American way of thinking,” Egnater said. “For them, the glass is always half full.” Americans, he said, feel “ripped off” if their glass “doesn’t have an iPod or a VCR or DVD player or whatever.”
According to Egnater, the optimism in South Africa is all the more heartening in the face of a level of poverty that would shock most Americans. Out of roughly four million people in Cape Town, for example, Egnater said, “Two million of those people live in the slums. I’d say 50-60 percent of those people live on an income for a family of four of about $50 a month. And their food is no cheaper than ours.”
His love of the people he met and the stark poverty of much of the country drove Egnater to action. First, he decided to go back to school to pursue a Master’s degree in public health policy.
“Foundation building is becoming a very important thing to me, and I wanted to have a credential that would help me push forward with public health foundations,” he said. Since a few months after his first trip to South Africa, Egnater has been studying through an on-job, on-campus executive program at the University of Michigan.
In the meantime he’s begun his first foundation, which will provide dental care to South Africa’s poor.
The goal of Egnater’s foundation, Mobile Dental Vehicles of South Africa, is to outfit a bus or Winnebago with dental chairs and equipment and send the vehicle into South Africa’s slums to care for the people there.
The foundation grew out of Egnater’s last trip to the country late this winter. Durning a dinner Egnater threw he met someone from the Lion’s Club of South Africa, who put him in touch with representatives from the country’s dental schools.
“One of the neat things about South Africa is they have a year’s requirement after graduation to do public service, and they’re going to make my vehicle one of the venues that you can use to serve,” he said.
Eventually, the dental vehicle will be staffed by a dentist, a dental student from one of the schools, and a hygienist.
“[The dental schools are] going to get students out on the vehicle, because a lot of the people in dental school come from either well-to-do or at least middle class families and have not spent any time working with the poor,” said Egnater.
Egnater is no stranger to helping people. The current director of the Southeast Michigan HIV/AIDS Coalition, Egnater said he has been working with HIV-positive clients “for many, many years.”
“We’re one of the few offices that have a regular clientele recommended by infectious disease doctors well beyond the metro Detroit area,” he said.
In the future, Egnater hopes to relocate to South Africa full time, and currently owns a house in that country which he rents out.
“I knew from the moment I got there that I would eventually go there [to retire],” said Egnater. In the meantime, Egnater is seeking private and corporate donors to help fund the foundation.
Asked what he would like to communicate to the rest of the country about Africa, Egnater said, “I think I’d like people to know that Americans need to visit Africa and think about Africa. About twelve thousand people a day die of AIDS in Africa. It doesn’t make the paper, but three people or five people dead in Iraq do.”
“We don’t think about Africa,” he continued, “we don’t know about Africa – we don’t care about Africa. But I do.”