A missionary brings dentistry, Christ’s love to Latin America

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Some people have the kind of faith that spills out of them; it's in their joy-filled eyes, it's in their ready laughter and gentle manner. And for some, it's so powerful they are compelled to share it outside their comfort zones and even their countries.

Scarlet Sandoval, a parishioner of St. Philip Church in Falls Church, is such a person. The dental assistant has become a missionary to Latin America, bringing basic dental care to the poor and touching hearts with her infectious faith.

"I love people very much," said Sandoval during a recent interview in Arlington. "I want to reach hearts, because faith comes when we truly believe in our heart that we are God's children."

Toothache turned gift

Sandoval was born May 17, 1964, in Guatemala City. Raised in the Catholic faith, she hoped one day to express her love for people as a doctor.

Growing up, her mother was clear about what was needed for success in life. "She told me always to depend on the Lord, pray and to ask for guidance," said Sandoval. "And I did."

After earning her nursing degree in Guatemala, Sandoval held on to her dream of becoming a doctor as she moved to the United States to be with her then-husband. Over time, though, that dream began to slip away. She needed to pass English proficiency tests before she could begin college classes. And college was very expensive, far more than they could afford. Sandoval grew discouraged.

Needing an income, she began working at a daycare. Although far from her vison for the future, she made the best of it.

Then two decades ago, a pain in her mouth led her to the dental office of Dr. Joseph Cusumano, a parishioner of St. Luke Church in McLean. Cusumano pulled her aching wisdom tooth. She returned six months later for a cleaning. At the end of the appointment, Cusumano said, "If you ever want to learn about dentistry, I can hire you part time and give you training."

Sandoval was stunned by the proposition. "But you don't even know who I am," she said.

"No, I know," Sandoval recalled him saying. "You are very smart. You can do more, but it's up to you."

She thanked him but declined.

When she returned for a cleaning six months later, he repeated the offer. Again she said no.

At the next visit, Cusumano asked if she'd be interested in part-time child care for his infant daughter.

His persistence paid off. "I built up a very nice relationship with the family, and after about three months caring for (the daughter) I decided I'd be interested in learning dentistry," said Sandoval.

Following a trial period, Sandoval was hired as a full-time dental assistant and enjoyed her job. She raised her son, and he graduated from Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington.

About 10 years ago, one of the hygienists in Cusumano's office told Sandoval that her brother, a dentist, was going on a trip to El Carmen Village in Guatemala to provided dental care to the poor. Sandoval decided to join them.

On the last day of the trip, Sandoval reflected on the greatest need she'd witnessed: spiritual hunger. Not sure how to help, she resolved to come back the following year.

When she returned, she discovered the village had a little church, and one evening she joined a group praying the rosary.

"That day, something touched my heart," said Sandoval. "I felt a calling from the Blessed Mother of El Carmen telling me, 'I'm giving you this mission.'

"I was kind of shocked, I was like, 'Why me? Why me? I am a big sinner.'"

Yet Sandoval knew there was no turning back, and she felt an overwhelming call to share God's love with the poor in her native country.

'It is joy, it is happiness'

Sandoval returned to Guatemala year after year, first with Helping Hands Medical Missions and eventually on her own, brining not only dental care but also religious banners with scriptural messages of hope, rosaries, prayer books, music and, most importantly, her ardent faith.

Her approach to evangelization is simple. "It's just natural, I just be myself," she said.

Sandoval hires local dentists to assist her in Guatemala, where she now treats and ministers to about 230 people in El Carmen and 60 children in two Guatemalan orphanages.

She eventually added missions to Mexico, where she teams up with Medical Mission Network USA to help around 180 people, and plans to partner with a doctor to start a mission in Ecuador this year.

"She has a great and unsullied love for people and a very passionate zeal to evangelize in every little way possible," said Father Gregory Woodward, a missionary in Mexico who serves as Sandoval's spiritual director. "The communities greatly miss her when she leaves, and the consensus is that she is very special and makes quite an impact."

Most of the places she visits do not have regular medical services, and people often go months or a year without medical and dental care.

Sandoval uses vacation and sick days for her five annual mission trips, which she pays for herself. She also cleans houses on the weekends to earn additional funds.

"At some points, I thought I will not be able to make a mission because I don't have enough money, but then, in one way or another, I get to do what I have to do," she said.

Sandoval acknowledged that suffering is part of her work. "Being a missionary, you have to leave your life behind," she said. "But even if I suffer before or after a mission, during the days I'm serving it is joy, it is happiness, it is energy, it is passion."

Cusumano and his wife, Cheri, who died two years ago, supported and admired Sandoval's mission work from the start.

"She's been an inspiration to me and is making such a big difference," said Cusumano. "She's on a mission to do her mission."

With the support of Cusumano and her dentistry colleagues, Sandoval now has a small mobile dental unit and chair that she can bring with her to remote areas. A few dental companies also donate supplies.

Sandoval is grateful for Cusumano's encouragement and for his gentle, relentless prodding years ago.

"Part of who I am now is due to him," she said. "If I'd never learned dentistry, maybe I'd never been able to become a missionary. I totally believe the Lord has a plan in my life. It was meant to be."

She hopes one day to turn her work into a foundation, "so that when I'm gone the work can continue reaching all these places," she said.

Along with her missionary work in Latin America, Sandoval evangelizes closer to home, too. She teaches religious education to seventh-graders at St. Philip Church, leads a "rosary rally" in honor of Our Lady of Fatima each October and prays the rosary once a month in front of a local abortion clinic.

"We are living in a very crazy world," said Sandoval. "It's very difficult to be a Catholic today. But we have to have faith, we have to continue fighting. We have to leave ourselves behind and serve with love."

She said every Catholic, not just missionaries, is called to evangelize. "You can be a missionary anywhere," she said. "Go to your neighbor's house and see if they need anything; work at a shelter on the weekend; visit the sick in the hospital. Put yourself in the situation of others, and just ask if you can help."

Because the goal, she added, is to move hearts toward God by touching them with love.

How to help

Email Scarlet Sandoval.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014