'Serving a purpose': Fargo woman enhances smiles in Kenya
FARGO - If you go to Sharon Secor's home for a visit, she's bound to offer you a cup of coffee, a cookie and a virtual trip to Kenya.
"That's from Kenya," she says, pointing to the top shelf of her bookcase and a figurine of two people dancing. "The scarf I'm wearing is from there and the baskets in the corner are probably my favorites. They're also from Kenya. All of these things bring me so much joy."
The Fargo woman is almost as much at home in the African nation as she is in the United States. During the last 21 years, she's traveled to Kenya approximately 30 times doing humanitarian work — the latest project ensuring Kenyans get the oral health they so desperately need.
According to the International College of Dentists, there are only 1,000 dentists serving the nation of 47 million.
"The amount of poor oral health is incredible," Secor says. "I've seen 3-year-olds whose teeth have been decimated by malnutrition and I've seen adults with unbelievable diseases in their mouths."
Back in 1995, Secor was serving as a youth director at First Presbyterian Church in Fargo, and she started exploring mission possibilities in Kenya. By 2000, hospital officials in the town of Kikuyu told Secor and fellow church member and dentist Dr. William (Bill) Hunter that they were in need of a dental unit for the hospital.
Hunter says Secor's leadership resulted in a plan to form two committees — one in Fargo and the other in Kenya — to brainstorm possibilities. Fundraising began for a state-of-the art eight-treatment room clinic where a wide variety of dental procedures could be performed and where Kenyans could learn more about oral health.
After six years of planning and overcoming many obstacles, the clinic opened.
"It's been such an improvement," Secor says. "Most dental clinics there have dirt floors with a chair by the window. The light from outside is the only light they have when they extract teeth."
By 2009, the clinic was financially self-sufficient. But Secor is quick to point out that she didn't do it alone.
"Bill is the real hero here. This was his vision. I've just been helping him," she says. "And the Kenyans themselves have been invested in the project since the beginning. It wasn't us saving them. It was them addressing the need and working to make it happen."
Hunter isn't surprised by Secor's humble attitude. "She exudes humility," he says.
But Secor and Hunter's work wasn't done.
Shortly after the Kikuyu clinic opened, they started work on another clinic in the rural town of Chogoria at the base of Mount Kenya. Secor calls it a "dot on the map" where the dentist to patient ratio is a staggering one dentist for every 378,000 people.
By 2015, Secor, Hunter and the committee had helped raise enough money to build a four-room dental treatment unit at the clinic. They also started a new venture: Kenyan Oral Health Initiative, which seeks to provide immediate, comprehensive and preventive dental services to the general population in Kenya. There, they put special emphasis on the poorest, most vulnerable segments of Kenyan society.
"She is and has been an inspiration to countless, and I am just blessed to be one of those lives she has touched," Hunter says, "None of the work accomplished in Kenya would ever have been possible without her persistent, dedicated and inspirational leadership."
In November, Secor — who graduated with a degree in sociology and has no formal dental training — was named an Honorary Fellow in the International College of Dentists for her work in Kenya; Hunter nominated her.
This month, Secor will have yet another opportunity to visit the country and maybe even pick up more souvenirs and gifts to line her living room shelves. She says this trip might be her last.
"Of course every time I go I say that," she says. "I remember someone telling me, 'Once you get the red dirt of Kenya on your shoes you'll always come back.' It's no joke. I have red dirt on all of my shoes. It's just so amazing there and I guess we're just not done. I still think I'm serving a purpose."