Liza and Tessie’s Story

Five years ago, Liza and her husband Nathan moved to Calgary from the Philippines. Liza was pregnant at the time and was excited to start a new life with her new family in Canada.

mother and daughter smiling for the camera

But when his work contract expired, Nathan was denied immigrant status to remain in the country. He was forced to return home, leaving Liza and her infant daughter to learn a new language, culture, and city alone.

Liza has been going through the process of getting immigrant status as well, but until she receives it, she can’t work, get an Alberta health card or health insurance. She lives in constant fear that she will be sent back to the Philippines or be separated from her now 5-year-old daughter Tessie, who was born in Calgary. Without the ability to work, Liza relies on the friends and community they’ve found in Calgary.

“They helped me when I had my daughter and my husband had to go back. Now they help me get food. It’s not just about the food though, it’s great having people to talk to. With the pandemic, I don’t know if it was depression, but with the help of the community I got through it. My husband has been away from me for five years. He’s never met his daughter. And so it’s hard because I don’t have family here. So my community becomes my family here.”

Tessie started kindergarten this year. She’s a kind little girl who loves to draw and play games, and wants to be a ballerina when she grows up. Tessie has an Alberta Health Care card, but unfortunately that doesn’t cover the health care she needed most – dental.

A few years ago, Tessie started complaining of pain in her mouth. Liza called around to ask for help, but was told she’d have to pay hundreds of dollars just for a check-up. Without income, Liza had no options.

As Tessie’s pain got worse, so did Liza’s desperation. Tessie couldn’t sleep or eat certain foods because of the pain. Every parent understands the heartbreak of seeing their child in pain, and nothing seemed to help. One fortunate day while volunteering, Liza met a woman who recommended The Alex.

Often new Canadians who are going through the immigration process are afraid to ask for help or provide information, because they’re worried immigration authorities may get involved. Indeed, Liza was worried, but she decided to trust her friend, be brave, and call The Alex Dental Health Bus. Tessie was able to see a hygienist on the bus within a few months.

“She enjoyed the bus. She wasn’t scared and liked the people there. They taught her flossing and brushing and she has remembered everything they taught her.”

dental hygenist teaching a child how to brush properly using a model of teeth

Tessie learned a lot on the bus, but when the hygienist looked in her mouth it was clear it was too late for prevention. Tessie needed treatment on all her top baby teeth and 4 lower baby teeth. She required teeth to be pulled, stainless steel crowns, fillings, and baby tooth root canals. She also had an infection in the upper left side of her mouth.

There’s a lot the hygienists can do on The Alex Dental Health Bus, but because it’s a mobile clinic, capacity is limited. Cases like Tessie’s need equipment and expertise that can only be found in a dental office. That’s why over the past few years, the team at The Alex has been developing the “Dental Access Network” (DAN), which is a network of dental offices in Calgary that volunteer their time and resources to help kids like Tessie, whose family cannot afford the cost of dental procedures.

“It would’ve cost me thousands and thousands of dollars. I was in shock when I heard. I’ve heard that when people are immigrating to Canada they’re told to get their dental work done at home before coming here because it’s so expensive.”

The Alex team referred Tessie to a dentist in northeast Calgary, and within two months she had her operation.

“I don’t know what I can give back to The Alex community who helped me. I don’t know what I can do, I cannot do anything about her teeth because I don’t have money. Even if I don’t have status I feel so blessed.”

7 months after the operation, Tessie is doing well. She’s no longer in pain and brushes and flosses her teeth every day to prevent problems in the future. Her favourite part is gurgling the water and laughs at the sound every time she does it.

Since her first experience with the Dental Health Bus, Liza has continued her journey with The Alex by volunteering at the Community Food Centre. She helped cook and package over 400 meals during the height of the pandemic for her neighbours. She enjoyed cooking and learning from the chef and sharing recipes from back home.

“You helped me so much. If I can do anything, I will give my time to give back. I pray that you can help more people like me.”

Liza plans to keep volunteering with The Alex, continuing to demonstrate that she has a lot to offer the community – a big heart, a lovely smile, and courage and resilience gained from unique experiences and a strong community.

“I’m so glad because there’s something for everybody [at The Alex] – for food, market, dental and healthcare. All in one package. If you need help, just go to The Alex. They ask ‘what do you need?’ Just go there and they can help you. And if they can’t help right away they find a way to help. They never say no.”

The Alex Dental Health Bus visits underserved communities in Calgary, educating kids ages 6-24 on the importance of oral hygiene and providing preventative dental services. Many who use the program are low-income, non-insured or underinsured, and shoulder the greatest burden of dental disease in our community.

We take action because we know that dental health problems often lead to chronic pain, infection, lowered self-esteem, and compromised performance at school. Dental health problems are also linked to other serious health issues.

A side-profile photo of The Alex Dental Health Bus