Dentist’s love for community service lands him honor
By Kathy Feist
Dr. Joseph Spalitto has been accepted into the prestigious International College of Dentists (ICD), an honor society that recognizes dentists who have performed outstanding community service through volunteer work. Only seven other dentists in Kansas City, MO, have been so honored, and 124 in Missouri.
“I have a love for community service,” says Spalitto who’s been practicing at his office at the Red Bridge Professional Building, 400 E. Red Bridge Rd., since 1973.
The awards, achievements and public service have stacked up over the years: COMBAT Drug Commissioner for Jackson County, Exalted Ruler of the local Elk’s Lodge, board member of Friends of Special People, part-time clinical professor at UMKC School of Dentistry, and a member of the Rinehart Board, volunteer for the Westside Community Action Network, board member of the St. Joseph Table at St. Thomas More Church, and more.
Perhaps most notable is his contribution to a Third World country.
For over ten years Spalitto and his wife, Liz, a dental hygienist, traveled to Guatemala to perform dental missionary work. He eventually became director of numerous dental and medical missions to that country and was made Honorary Consul of Guatemala for part of the midwest region and a member of the U.S. State Department.
Spalitto recalls when he was first asked to become a part of St. Thomas More Parish’s Guatemala Action Group. “Why not!” he remembers replying.
In 1997, Spalitto and his wife traveled to St. Thomas More’s sister parish in San Andres, Itzapa, a region in the central highlands of Guatemala. “We would be standing on our feet on a concrete floor with a flashlight and nothing for the patient to spit in,” recalls Liz. “It was very primitive.” The couple had to bring their own dental instruments. A dental chair was brought in from a nearby community. Over a two or three day period, over 200 people would be lined up to receive dental care.
Overwhelmed with the number of patients during their first visit, Spalitto asked dental students from the UMKC School of Dentistry and later, medical students from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences to join him. Eventually medical students became a part of the contingency. At various times, they were joined by their son Pete, now a dentist practicing in St. Louis, and daughter Gina, now a local obstetrician/gynecologist. After grandchildren began to appear, the Spalitto’s eventually retired from their missionary trips.
“Those were our ‘vacations,’” recalls Liz. “We didn’t even take vacations because of that.”
Despite being in need of a break, Dr. Spalitto continued to be involved with the Guatemalan community.
Spalitto received much publicity for his role in sending home three undocumented immigrants who had died in a van that wrecked near Columbia, MO. The bodies had no U.S. relatives to claim them and were about to be cremated and sent back to Guatemala. But Spalitto intervened, knowing the devastation it would bring to the families to receive their loves ones in that state. He was able to raise the money, have the bodies properly embalmed and returned to their families.
One time, as Consulate for Guatemala, Spalitto received a call from from the Consulate General of Mexico. “He said, ‘Hey, we have a Guatemalan. Can you help her?’”, recalls Spalitto. The young woman was a Hurricane Katrina survivor who had “no place to stay, no money, and was pregnant,” says Spalitto. The woman had been raped by the Coyotaje while coming to the United States. The Coyotaje, or coyote, are paid to smuggle people across the U.S./Mexican border.
Spalitto was able to find her housing and work in Chicago, where there were programs for Hurricane Katrina Disaster victims. The Spalittos purchased a bus ticket for her, after buying her clothing, necessities and a suitcase. According to Spalitto, she had her baby and found success in Chicago.
“A lot of people have a big hang-up on undocumented people,” says Spalitto. “But they’ve never been in that situation where they lived in terror. “We witnessed a kid who stole something and they burned him right there in the streets.”
“There are those who come to the U.S. and take advantage of circumstances,” he concedes. “But then there are others who have no choice but to leave. They’ve never had a chance to progress in life. If they are Indians in the mountains, they are stuck in a society that never advances. When we were there, the median pay was $1000 a year. And no medical or dental care.”
“People don’t know what a third world country really is,” he says.
Dr. Spalitto knows and has compassion for the needy as a result. There is a long list of recipients who have received his care, both here and abroad. One can say the world smiles a little brighter because of Spalitto’s many humanitarian efforts.
Dr. Spalitto will be inducted as a Fellow of the ICD at the 88th Annual Convocation in Atlanta, GA, on October 19.