Man with a van

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Orthodontist Dr John Brabant has created a service to help the homeless which has extended to a service addressing oral health. By Amanda Lohan

Carevan’s Dr John Brabant
Carevan’s Dr John Brabant

A few years ago, Dr John Brabant was just your average orthodontist providing surgery and adjustments across the Albury-Wodonga region on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. That was until an article about homelessness in the local paper prompted Dr Brabant to ask that life-changing question, ‘Why not?’ Now three years later, Dr Brabant and his 400-strong team have been rewarded for their efforts in being named New South Wales Volunteer Team of 2012.

It was over a bottle of wine in Deniliquin that Dr Brabant first came across the newspaper article describing the high homeless rate in the area. “You just wouldn’t pick it,” says the orthodontist. “It’s not seen, like in the capital cities. In the country, it’s basically couch sleepers rather than rough sleepers. Even the few rough sleepers keep out of people’s notice. There are so many families on the poverty line who are also just one week’s wages away from being homeless.”

It was at this realisation that Dr Brabant’s idea for helping to feed and care for the homeless and disadvantaged in his community started to take shape. Unfortunately, his brainchild, the Carevan Foundation, suffered a rocky start. In 2009, after Dr Brabant invested in and painted an ex-South American sausage van, a nasty warehouse fire razed it to the ground. The first van did not then officially hit the streets until 2010, when the local Jayco dealer stepped in with a donated caravan.

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Charles Sturt University oral health student Elena shows Wodonga West Primary School students how to help the homeless.
Charles Sturt University oral health student Elena shows Wodonga West Primary School students how to help the homeless.

“I wanted poverty to be out there and in front of people,” says Dr Brabant. “The van was intentionally brightly coloured so people know what it was all about. They couldn’t look at this van and not have an opinion on the fact that poverty exists in Australia today.”

 

In the few short years since it first began, the Carevan Foundation has branched out to other areas—Wangaratta, the New South Wales Central Coast, Blacktown and Griffith. The key to this success has been the development of a ‘free franchise’ concept, whereby all the necessary training is provided, including advice for on-training volunteers. Franchisees are asked only to retain the same concept, colours and t-shirts, so that any homeless person travelling anywhere in Australia can arrive in an area and recognise the brightly coloured van, knowing they will be accepted and fed, and have someone sit down and chat with them.

Local Year 9 food technology classes are invited to cook for the Carevan once a week. The meal goes out with the Carevan that night, and at the end of the term, the students are invited to go out with the van and sit down for a meal with the people they have been cooking for. Dr Brabant says that by helping develop a sense of compassion in students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, the Carevan is also helping to create a second generation of volunteers while establishing a sustainable supply source for the van.

“You can give them a sense of identity and through that they’ve got a chance to get a sense of achievement and maybe break out of the cycle.” – Dr John Dr Brabant, orthodontist

According to Dr Brabant, it’s not just about giving a person food, but feeling a sense of belonging. “You can give them a sense of identity and through that they’ve got a chance to get a sense of achievement and maybe break out of the cycle,” he says.

Dr John Brabant’s Sun Smiles program offers 10 orthodontic scholarships a year to children in need.
Dr John Brabant’s Sun Smiles program offers 10 orthodontic scholarships a year to children in need.

While Dr Brabant is responsible for the concept, he attributes the ongoing success of the program to the Carevan CEO, Jodie Tiernan, and a vast network of volunteers who keep the vans running. “Most people have in their heart a want to help other people. All I’ve done is provided the medium.”

Since starting the Carevan program, a new social need quickly has presented itself to the orthodontist. “You can tell a homeless person not so much by their clothes but by the state of their mouth,” he says. With the help of dental hygienist Cathryn Carboon, the Carevan Sun Smiles program was born, tasked with providing preventative oral healthcare and education for primary school age children. The ultimate goal is to help break the cycle of poverty through improved dental and medical health, and the associated boost in confidence, social acceptance and improved job prospects.

The Sun Smiles team employ puppetry to teach children how to brush their teeth. “They have a thirst for knowledge, kids at that age, and they just soak it up,” says Dr Brabant. A key component of the program is a biannual five per cent sodium fluoride varnish, which is offered with the assistance of volunteer hygienists and students from partnering universities.

In addition to the preventative work, the Sun Smiles program offers around 10 orthodontic scholarships a year to children in need. Essentially, these scholarships involve free orthodontic care by Dr Brabant and other willing practitioners across Australia. There are currently 25 children receiving free care through the program and it’s something he’d love to see more of.

“This can go Australia-wide if people realise the value for the community and what the community and volunteers get out of it,” explains Dr Brabant. “It’s not just people and clients we’re helping; it’s the volunteers—most of them have a life-changing experience as a result of being involved.”

How to get involved

Feeling inspired to make a difference? There are a number of ways to get involved with the Carevan and Sun Smiles programs…

  1. Franchise a Carevan: The ‘free franchise’ opportunity can provide any community in Australia with the training necessary to set up a Carevan and associated Kids Cooking and Caring program (which is used to help supply the van and keep it sustainable).
  2. Spread the Sun Smiles message: The Sun Smiles program relies on university partnerships to provide student dentists to get involved in the dental program.
  3. Offer orthodontic scholarships: The Sun Smiles program currently offers around 10 free scholarships a year to disadvantaged children in need of orthodontic care. They are currently seeking orthodontists Australia-wide who are willing to join in and offer their services to those in need.

To get involved, or to simply find out more about the programs, head to the contacts page on www.carevan.com.au.

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