Profile - Dr. D. Stephen Acuff, DDS

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When D. Stephen Acuff, DDS, returned to Savannah from his recent Project Smile, Inc., trip to the little Central American country of Belize, he radiated the triumphant afterglow of a mission successfully completed and thoroughly enjoyed.

"It was my 26th trip in 11 years," he says now in his charming Victorian office, filled with the comfortable furniture and antique dental paraphernalia beloved by his patients. "We treated 228 children this time. That's going to save them from growing up and having the misery of toothaches and many other problems."

These trips, to offer dentistry to the impoverished children of Belize, have been, in a sense, the fulfillment of a boyhood dream of this perfectionist, called by his local Savannah patients "the best dentist you could ever find."

When he was 11 years old, Stephen Acuff first went to an orthodontist in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. Then and there, enraptured by all the tools, the equipment, the toys, that this man had in his office, decided that he would become a dentist.

"I already loved working with my hands," he recalls. "And I built models -- model airplanes, model cars..." And the little boy-to-be-dentist also dreamed of visiting faraway places.

Maybe, he thought, "I could be a dentist and go and practice in Third World countries."

Acuff attended dental school at Emory, in Atlanta, where he met his wife, Monti Acuff, who was a student on her way to becoming a banker. After their marriage in 1972, the pair stayed in Atlanta, working and saving every cent they could.

Then they bought a motor home. "We traveled for 13 months," he says, "through the U.S. Europe, North Africa, Bahamas, Hawaii, Mexico, Canada, looking for a smaller city to settle into before starting a family and our long terms careers.

"After seeing villages in France and England, we felt that Savannah had the charm we wanted. We moved here in Feb. 1978 and found the people warm and friendly and the pace of life we wanted."

Acuff set up his dental practice, his wife went to work for a bank, and they raised two sons, now 20 and 24.

In 1992, now an established Savannah dentist, Dr. Acuff went to an Episcopal Church oyster roast.

"Someone came up me and asked if I were interested in going to some faraway, exotic places and would I like to meet the Bishop of Belize who was visiting."

The following spring, after a lot of negotiating with the government of Belize and other entities, Project Smile, a cooperative effect between the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia and the Anglican Diocese of Belize, was launched.

Dr. Acuff and several other dentists, along with auxiliary personnel, both trained and untrained, made their first trip to St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church in Belize to give dental treatment to children, ages 4 to 14. They set up a permanent 6-chair dental treatment facility in an unused classroom at St. Mary's School.







The dentists who participate in Project Smile all pay their own way and that of their dental staffs. Some come in and work on Saturdays for free, using whatever money they take in to pay for the trips. Others, like Dr. Acuff, simply pay out of their personal funds.

"We rely," he says, "on donations to maintain the clinic, pay for supplies. We have now treated over 6,000 children, including those from the Belize School for the Blind, the Stella Maris Government School for the mentally and physically challenged, and several other schools from which the children are bused to the clinic."

They have helped the children of Belize in other ways. "We started the first computer lab in the country, a lab for kids. One, for the younger children, has nine computers on which they learn hand-eye coordination, spelling, grammar, geography, mathematics.

The older kids have their own computer lab, with about a dozen computers where they learn how to do research and look up things on the Internet, how to write papers and do word processing.

The team also started a lunch program. A woman in Georgia, who was remodeling some rental property, donated kitchen appliances which were shipped to Belize. "Now the children have hot lunches instead of just chewing on a piece of sugar cane, as they had done previously."

And there is a playground. Before, there was simply an open field, which had been an armory for the soldiers, and the kids played on the nasty construction debris and old broken concrete septic tanks.

"We got a grant and brought in 80 truckloads of sand and dirt, raised the entire level of the land so that at high tide, it wouldn't flood, and built a real playground set, much of this through the generosity of various charitable organizations in Savannah.

"And it's not all work for us. We have a good time down there. We work hard, we see lots of patients, and we have fun. The local women who help us all have someone -- a nephew who is a fisherman, and he brings us in fresh snapper, a brother who brings in lobsters. We go sailing and snorkeling. We have a great time," Acuff says with a smile.

"We invite all the local volunteers to join us and we have dinner together and we get a bunch of taxis to give them rides home in the dark, and we have a feast."

"We go down there and there is no telephone, no appointment book, there's no insurance form, no ledger or money. The kid comes in and you do what he needs, you give him a little toy, he loves you and leaves. It's pure dentistry. No HMOs, no PPO, no distractions like that."

Acuff feels their biggest success has been personal. "We now have a relationship with people of another culture. We learn from them. We come back with more than we gave. They are so happy down there with so much less. Many of these families don't have running water or electricity. We come down and get upset because we can't run our electric hair dryer. They laugh that someone would have an electric hairdryer." ---

"We provide examinations, cleanings, fluoride treatments, fillings, and we treat abscesses. Every child in the school receives a toothbrush and toothpaste, which are used at school every day after lunch. Every Wednesday they receive a fluoride rinse."







Like children in many third-world countries, many of these children had never seen a toothbrush or toothpaste. Their expectations of dental care were the hope that when they reached their late teens and their teeth grew seriously painful, they could get them all pulled.

As President of Project Smile, Dr. Acuff has put in a lot of miles and a lot of time into what clearly is a favorite passion.

"After only three years," he says, "we conducted a survey of our children versus the children of St. John's Anglican Cathedral School, just across the river. "The children in our Project Smile program had 62 percent less decay than the children at the other school. This was a better result than we expected after only three years!"

The Project grew quickly. Today, there are dental teams, not only from several cities in Georgia, but from many other states, including Ohio, South Carolina and New England. "Over the past 11 years, we've now treated 6,000 children." Each team has adult Belizian volunteers from the Belizian versions of the PTA or women's clubs.

"These are local moms who come in and help us. So each dentist has a Belizian dental helper. They sterilize the instruments, herd the children around and gather them upact as dental assistants."

For safety reasons, the clinic is locked up when the dental teams are away, but, says Dr. Acuff, "it is available to anyone who wishes to use it." The list of those who have done so includes Flying Doctors, Doctors without Borders, and a group of Pediatric dentists in Texas and Oklahoma.















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