Sint Maarten. My Island Bride.
I Crave Your Curves: Hillside,
Bays and Beaches, Narrow, Wide.
Some Parts Raw. Some Gentrified.
Your Warm Embrace, Sunnyside
Let’s me Hike or Bike, Mountainside.
Swim or Sail, Race or Ride.
While Gentle Breeze Makes Heat Subside.
Statehood-wise, a Great Divide:
French – to the North; Dutch – South-side.
But When Clashing Cultures Collide
Here: Magic, Miracles, Multiplied.
My Sensory Self: Satisfied.
You are coffee and pastries, sitting outside
Watching dinghies and yachts, side-by-side
Or planes landing, terrified!
You are BBQ outside. French dining inside.
Casinos at night. Cabaret, Roadside.
Poetry readings, Fireside.
Latin dancing, Electrified.
Your People: Bona-fide.
Their Stories, Struggles Blindside
Me. I Laughed, I Cried, was Petrified
Of How You Survived.
On Tourism. With Hurricanes. Social Divide.
But Like a Stubborn Jackass, You Defied.
Now Build Back Better to Former Pride.
Your Destiny: Yours to Decide.
Sint Maarten. My Island Bride.
I’ve testified to How You’ve Magnified
Me. Woke Me from Coma, Purified
Me. No More Glossy-Eyed.
No More Tongue Tied.
For You Are a Walk. A Stride. A Glide
Of Fond Memories, Mummified.
Everlasting after this Body’s Died.
But what do I really think of Sint Maarten? It’s awesome! My all-time favourite Caribbean island. A bilateral nation. Melting pot of people, culture, food, music, dance, art, sports and history. All in a Caribbean setting: beautiful beaches and bays, big and small boats, and a vibrant nightlife. Sure, you can visit as a tourist and stay locked in your resort or rental, but you’d be missing out on all Sint Maarten has to offer. Sint Maarten is the very definition of adventure and it’s also safe.
Sint Maarten is not without its share of problems, including the large informal labour market, complaints from those on one side of the island about the other side (who is ruder, who is cheaper, etc.), marginalized groups (particularly in the French Quarter) and lack of urban planning. But I take her faults along with her virtues.
And now I find myself organizing a full-fledged dental outreach trip in Sint Maarten from scratch, with the first one starting early summer 2023.
How It Began
I am a dental lawyer. My law firm helps dentists prepare, market and sell dental practices to dentists and dental service organizations. We review, explain and minimize legal risks, structure deals to reduce taxes, put team members on proper contracts, fix problematic leases and get dentists the best possible price and terms for their practice.
And while I love reviewing and negotiating complex legal paperwork, running open houses, putting deals together and closing them, it’s only so satisfying. It doesn’t fully engage my sensory, emotional, spiritual or creative sides. I always want to be more complete than I currently am.
That’s why, back in 2014, on my birthday, I serendipitously ran into Joseph Wright (aka “Papa Joe”), the Executive Director of Great Shape! Inc. in Jamaica while on vacation with the family. Both Papa Joe and his organization team were up with the Sandals Foundation to run temporary dental offices in the Caribbean to serve impoverished locals. Leading up to our chance encounter, I had wanted to help organize mission trips, but had no way of knowing how to do it.
And since that meeting, we’ve been bringing down Canadian dentists, dental students from U of T and UWO, hygienists, and support staff to the Caribbean to give back for free. We provide hygiene, restos, extractions, dentures, and even RCTs. And we’ve been growing the various programs; we’re organizing four programs this year alone in Grenada, Jamaica and Turks.
Fast forward to February 2022 – my good friend and businessman/philanthropist, Peter Demakos, invited me to hang out with him at his home in Sint Maarten. I seriously didn’t expect much. I figured I was just going to hit the beaches, go for a joyride in Peter’s jet boat, have our typical fresh fish and salad for dinner, etc. And that was it. Then back to Canada, selling dental practices.
But Peter is extremely sociable. And on our last night out at the fabulous Sale and Pepe restaurant, our table wasn’t ready. So he started talking – by happenstance – to another fellow diner, Makhicia Brooks (aka “Maki”) and her husband. As it turns out, Maki was the newish Managing Director of the St. Maarten Development Fund (“SMDF”), a non-profit foundation established to support the realization of Sint Maarten’s social development goals (including elderly care, gender support, poverty alleviation and community development). Peter mentioned to Makhi what I do and we exchanged contact info.
I was slightly intrigued at the prospect of expanding our dental outreach program to Sint Maarten, an island I had spent considerable time on with both my family and Peter.
But I wasn’t excited or convinced it could work. I had my questions and doubts. Was there a need for dental and hygiene services? How could we get our equipment there? Would volunteers want to come? There’s no Sandals or Beaches resort to host us, so which hotel or resort would step up? Do they have a large air-conditioned facility to operate a 20-operatory clinic? What about government authorizations to get volunteers, equipment and sundries into the country? Do we set up on the Dutch side or French side? Would anyone try to take advantage of our generosity? You know, the typical questions and concerns that come up when we run our dental outreach programs in other countries.
As it turns out, Maki was the perfect person to connect with. When I returned home to Canada, on February 27, 2022, I sent her an e-mail with a “wish list” of things I would need to get the program up and running. I just put something out there to see if anything would actually “stick.” She got back to me the very next day, explaining that dental services are largely inaccessible/expensive for many people on the island; she also explained that SMDF has worked with various partners, including the Ministry of Public Health and Social Development, so that they could bring the project to fruition.
A few weeks later, Maki and SMDF put together a professional backgrounder/proposal. It was quite impressive. They had identified the dental need, timelines and resources needed to make it all happen. WOW! Could this be real?
At that point, it made sense for me to return to Sint Maarten. But instead of a solo trip, this time I’d come down with Peter and a few dentists and other key stakeholders (who also happened to be past volunteers on my dental outreach trips over the years). This way, it looked more “real.” We’d all meet with Makhi, SMDF team members and the Minister of Public Health, Minister Omar Ottley.
From May 9-13, 2022, I returned to Sint Maarten with Peter and a delegate of past dental outreach volunteers – namely Dr. Arsalan Poorsina (GP, multiple practices), Dr. Fadi Swaida (GP, multiple practices), Dr. James Vassallo (retired, GP, Mississauga), Matthew Bladowski (dental appraiser and spouse of Dr. Nohora Martinez, who together own three practices), and Ronald Fung (dental consultant and transition specialist).
Meeting Minister Ottley to discuss our dental outreach program was a surreal experience. We had to leave the beach party life behind temporarily, put on some pants and shoes and act like professionals again. We went through intense screening and were escorted by security through halls and elevators until we finally reached his grand office.
Minister Ottley is a larger-than-life kind of guy. He is physically imposing. He was sharply dressed in a striped grey blazer and black trousers and shoes. He sat behind a big desk with note-takers by his side and he had a very serious look. After some formal initial introductions, he said something along the lines of: “We’re excited about having this dental program on the island. Having Maki and the SMDF involved is key, as their reputation is second to none and they can help get it done.”
The pressure was on. Time to switch to full professional-mode. We had travelled a long way to pitch him. But I needed to be super cool about it.
My opening line: “Apologies Minister Ottley, we would have had a few more Canadian representatives here, but it was Latin night at the Soggy Dollar last night and, well, you know what that means ….” It caught him and everyone else off guard; he smiled big and chucked loud. The conversation lightened up.
After a brief Q and A session about logistics, Minster Ottley then pointed his finger at Maki and dropped a bomb: “Maki, if there are any barriers to getting it done, speak with me immediately. Also, how quickly can you launch?” The room went silent. For a guy who sells (dental practices) for a living, it turns out that I wasn’t there to sell anything. He was already sold.
And with that, the Canadian delegate took some pictures with Maki and Jennai from SMDF and Minister Ottley. We left the meeting shocked and excited.
On the drive home, we tried to take it all in. What started as a solo trip with no intentions but for me to hang out with my buddy in Sint Maarten in February 2022, could – by pure happenstance by June 2023 – explode into an annual dental outreach program. That program could see 1,000-1,500 patients served for free over a 2-week period – delivering roughly USD$500k worth of free dental and hygiene services per year – by roughly 100 volunteers comprised of Canadian and US dentists, hygienists and support staff.
And that’s where we’re at. When the universe presents an opportunity and things fall into place, it’s something magical. Having returned back to Canada, I reached out to past dental volunteers and it looks like there won’t be any problem at all getting Canadian volunteers to come down. And with Great Shape! Inc.’s expertise in setting up large temporary dental clinics and overseeing the program for close to two decades through the Sandals Foundation, we’ll be ready to roll come next June.
Sint Maarten: ready or not, here we come.
About the Author
Michael Carabash, BA, LLB, JD, MBA, CDPM is a founding partner of DMC LLP, Canada’s largest dental-only law firm that helps dentists sell and buy practices in Ontario. Michael leads DMC’s annual Caribbean dental mission trips (Grenada, Jamaica, and Turks) Michael is now organizing Sint Maarten and Philippines dental outreach trips for 2023. Michael can be reached at email@example.com or 647.680.9530.