Looking back at a fellowship

Published on
May 13, 2011

I just got the second of my two Dennis A. Hunt Fund stories done and into a newspaper. They both dealt with the lack of dental care among the very poor.

The first of the pair of stories was published back in late February, around the fourth anniversary of the death of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old homeless Maryland boy who succumbed after bacteria from an abscessed tooth spread to his brain. Four years after I wrote that story for the Washington Post, it was a moving experience to go back and write about Deamonte again. Since he died, the state of Maryland has become a leader in the kind of reform that manages to get dental care to more poor children. As a kind of narrative thread I followed a shiny new mobile dental clinic named in Deamonte's honor, back to the school and community he left behind. It was a powerful experience, watching the dentistry unfold, hearing the stories from the volunteer dentists and hygienists, the children, the school staff and local and state officials remembering Deamonte and still grappling with oral health disparities within Maryland. The whole idea of reaching poor people with dental care means facing so many other challenges, unraveling so many other things including the isolation, difficult living conditions, fear and other burdens of poverty.

After I started writing about oral health back in 2007, I, along with dozens of other Washington Post reporters and editors lost our jobs through downsizing. The Hunt fund grant gave me the courage to go back to the Post and pitch another story about dental care.

This time I was writing as a freelancer for the huge Post, and also as the editor of tiny Street Sense, Washington DC's homeless newspaper, where I have worked as editor since I left the Post. Which leads me to the second story I had the chance to write with the help of the Hunt Fund, a story about homeless adults and their oral health. It was for Street Sense, and for the Street News Service, a sort of wire service that shares stories from street newspapers around the world. Today, our homeless and formerly homeless vendors were out on the street selling the paper with the story on the cover, many of them with dental stories of their own. My time at Street Sense has taught me a lot about the toll poverty takes on people. And the pain of poverty was never more clear to me than when the patients in that homeless dental clinic opened their mouths.

Both stories left me inspired with the sense there is much more to learn and say. I was grateful to have had the chance to have worked on both of them and I am not sure if either one of them would have gotten done without the help, encouragement and backing of the Hunt Fund and the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships. I know I would have felt much more alone without the friendships and professional support I found being part of this group. I know that for me the work will go on. I will continue to build upon this experience, so kindly and generously given to me.