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Hygienist travels to Africa on mission
Uganda WEB 1
Local dental hygenist April D’Olivo teaches children about brushing during a recent mission trip to Uganda. - photo by For the Forsyth County News

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For more information about Helping Hands Foreign Missions and its future mission trip opportunities, visit

While she’s helped improve a lot of smiles over the years, probably none were quite as bright as those April D’Olivo saw during a recent mission trip to Africa.

The dental hygienist, who’s worked at Advanced Dental Associates in Cumming for seven years, was one of about 25 people from several northeast Georgia churches who traveled to Uganda.

The mission trip, which ran from June 24 to July 6, was set up through the Gainesville-based Helping Hands Foreign Missions.

D’Olivo said she learned of the trip through her church, Oak Grove Baptist in north Forsyth.

“I just saw [the trip] on one of the e-mails we get from church and was like, ‘That sounds really cool,’” she said. “I wanted to do a mission trip this year and you really can’t go bigger than Africa, you know.”

D’Olivo and her son, 11-year-old Nathan Lyons, attended an informal meeting about the trip and “just kind of fell in love with it,” she said.

They then spent several months raising funds to cover their costs to go.

“It was a lot of money to raise, but we raised every penny and it was a great trip, definitely eye-opening.”

D’Olivo said her son ended up being the only child on the trip, which made him quite popular.

“These kids and these high schoolers and even the parents [in Uganda] were infatuated with him,” she said. “The kids would swarm him and follow him around every day … they just thought he was awesome.”

D’Olivo said the trip primarily focused on visiting schools to help the native people learn more about American education.

She said they spent time at a Helping Hands-sponsored school, as well as several “bush schools,” which she described as small rooms “made of mud and sticks” where up to 100 students are “jam packed inside.”

“The main purpose of the group was to take teachers from our community and implement some of our teaching methods to the teachers there,” she said, noting there was an emphasis on reading education.

“Now they just read using memorization … they never learn how to spell a word or sound it out, so it takes them so much longer to learn and they never really truly learn to read, they just remember words.”

Schools are typically run by religious organizations, she said, and a student’s faith is determined by which school is in their area.

“One of the high school students said basically what area you live in determines your faith, so it’s not a personal decision like here,” she said, noting the schools are usually Baptist, Catholic or Muslim.

She said while the teachers on the trip were working with the Ugandan educators, the other team members spent time with the Ugandan students.

During those times, she got to lead students, who ranged in age from around 4 to 17, in various art projects, such as making necklaces and bracelets from beads the team brought over.

They also created paper butterflies from empty toilet paper rolls in which they colored and glued paper wings to.

“We let them color because they’re not used to getting to color,” she said. “You took the crayon away and you could tell it just broke their heart because they’re not used to getting to do that.”

She also shared dental advice with the students and gave them oral care supplies, including more than 700 toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste.

“So we were able to not only have the education with the kids, but were able to give them supplies because otherwise they would have nothing,” she said.

While she was happy to share the supplies, D’Olivo said she was surprised at the health of most of the students’ teeth.

“The interesting thing is … most of their teeth are in pretty good shape,” she said. “There were a handful that had some rotten teeth, but most of them have the most beautiful teeth you’ve ever seen in your life.”

She attributed the health of their teeth to a lack of sugar and other processed foods that most American children consume frequently.

“They don’t have sugar,” she said. “They eat corn, water and mom’s milk, and meat they get from goats, cows and chickens and turkeys.

“They don’t brush at all and have no idea even what a toothbrush is, so you would expect to see a lot of oral disease but it just wasn’t there.”

Another highlight of the trip for D’Olivo was visiting the site of a future mission project of Helping Hands called the Village of Eden.

The 130-acre site will eventually provide housing, a school, library, medical clinic and a soccer field.

But she was most inspired by the graciousness of the team’s hosts.

“The children were very, very receptive to us,” she said. “They would all run out, hold their hand out and greet. They want to touch your hand and the little girls when they do it, they bow on the knee and touch your hand.

“When you visit the churches, they’re clapping and singing to you because they don’t have instruments, it’s just their hands and voices and maybe a drum,” she added. “They’re singing to you, they’re greeting you.”

The trip, she added, made her aware of how fortunate she and her family are to live in America.

“It kind of saddens me a little bit because we [in the U.S.] are beyond spoiled, just beyond,” she said. “The needs there are just incredible.

“It’s heartbreaking but at the same time, you have to walk into it knowing that you can’t save the world … but you might could help one person or provide something to someone or say something to someone to help them.”