Old Libertyville High pals go on mission to provide dental care in rural Mexico
A priest, a rock musician and an elected official, all old friends from Libertyville High School, will travel to southern Mexico on Saturday. But it's no vacation.
After landing in Acapulco, the seemingly disparate trio will travel in open trucks on dirt roads to the rural village of Jocutla. For 10 hours each of four successive days, they'll work as part of a team providing dental care to hundreds of area residents, some of whom will walk hours to see them.
"I call it a working retreat," said the Rev. Matt Foley, who did mission work in 70 remote villages in the southern Sierra Madre Mountains in the state of Guerrero.
Foley, pastor at St. James Parish in Arlington Heights, will be joined by rocker Ike Reilly and Libertyville Township Supervisor Kathleen O'Connor as part of a team of 14 dentists, hygienists, translators and supporters providing dental care for residents.
"The towns we go to are usually less than 1,000 people," Foley said.
"I worked there for six years. It's somewhat like coming home."
As part of standard practice for security purposes, they'll be escorted by police into the remote area, sleep on air mattresses and forego showers for a while as part of a twice-annual trek.
"It's a wonderful experience," said O'Connor, who made the trips since 2014. "It's a really great program most people don't know anything about."
Foley is director of El Nino Rey (The Child King), which had its origins in 1995 with his commitment to provide educational funding and materials to needy children in Guerrero.
About $60,000 per year is distributed, and scholarships were awarded to 742 students from preschool to college age in 2018. Every year since 2001, El Nino Rey has sent two dental teams that travel at their own expense of about $1,400 each.
The first team, which went to Achigca in late December and early January, registered more than 500 students and provided dental care to 343 patients in four days. The work involved 832 fillings, 382 extractions and 299 cleanings, according to O'Connor.
After landing in Acapulco, the second team will drive to Quechultenango and leave Sunday morning in open trucks to Jocutla.
"It's a rough ride," O'Connor said. "We basically ride in hay trucks. We bring all our supplies and pack them in crates, and we drive up the mountain.
"Some families will walk several hours for the services and unfortunately, some have to be turned away at the end of each day."
"People flock to these dentists like the Beatles are coming," observed Reilly, who was recruited by Foley and made the trip last year. None of the trio have dental skills but assist as needed.
"I carry a lot of things around and help with morale," Reilly said.
"These people live a very different life. It's interesting to see how positive they are without any of the amenities we have," he said. "It's very humbling."
Foley, O'Connor and Reilly attended high school in the late 1970s and early 1980s but have remained good friends.