The University of New England College of Dental Medicine offered free care in February to the local community of Cambodian Buddhist monks in Buxton, Maine, a rural town some 20 kilometers west of the city of Portland, and 170 kilometers north of Boston. Until now the monks, who earn no income, have had little access to dental care.
“Finally, there is no more pain,” said Phally Prakk, a monk at Buxton’s Wat Samaki Buddhist temple, after the 25 February extraction of an aching molar at the University of New England’s Oral Health Center. “I’ve had this going on for years, and this was really needed.” (University of New England)
The monks and other Cambodians settled in and around Portland are primarily refugees who fled their war-torn home in the 1970s. In 1984, some 800 Cambodians formed together to create the non-profit organization called Watt Samaki, or “Unity Temple.” At the time they had no building, but soon found a property in Portland to call home.
Eventually, they outgrew that property and purchased land in rural Buxton in 2005, before gaining approval to build in 2008. The rural space offers peace and space for the community.
“People like to meditate in forests,” said Pirun Sen, who was chairman of the board of Watt Samaki Cambodian Buddhist Temple when it first opened. “It’s a place to focus. It lifts their spirits up.” (Portland Press Herald)
Dr. Jon Ryder, dean of the college, said that providing the monks with oral health services fell in line with the mission of improving the health of people and communities, particularly in rural areas. “Our mission is to improve the health of Northern New England, as well as rural and underserved areas, while shaping the future of dentistry through excellence in education, discovery, and service,” Ryder said. “It makes sense to us that we prioritize new Mainers as part of that.” (University of New England)
The dental college has a longstanding connection with Cambodia through an exchange program for faculty and students with the University of Puthasastra Dental School in Phnom Penh. The school has strengthened these ties recently in outreach to the Buxton temple, helping them to implement COVID-19 safety measures at recent holidays and offering instruction and distributing oral hygiene supplies, including toothbrushes and toothpaste.
Further, reaching out to monastics at the temple fits with the college’s commitment to make special efforts to serve Maine’s Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities.
“As Maine’s only dental college, we have a responsibility to educate and produce highly skilled and competent dentists to serve our state,” Ryder said. “That service begins with putting the patient first, no matter who they are, or where they come from. If we can educate students while, at the same time, improving the health of our communities, we have fulfilled our mission.” (University of New England)
Phally Prakk expressed his gratitude for the treatment from the college, saying, “I’m really thankful and really, really happy that the dental school has this kind of program to help people who are low-income and need care.” (University of New England)
College of Dental Medicine offers no-cost care to Buxton’s Buddhist monks (University of New England)
Cambodians seek to preserve centuries-old traditions in Buxton (Portland Press Herald)
Watt Samaki Temple (Pluralism Project Archive)