The Children of Appalachia

Appalachian Poverty Jon Letko’s love for the outdoors has led him all across the United States – from the Olympic National Park in the Pacific Northwest to the Appalachians in the east; from the Grand Tetons in Wyoming to Canyonlands in Utah. Given that a large part of Jon’s working career involved staring at teeth for hours on end, it’s of little surprise that Jon was usually eager to get away from the clinic on the weekends. Although he loves dentistry, Jon Letko was thrilled to be able to take a step back from his professional role and focus on traveling. After all, the practice remains in good hands with his wife Linda at the helm. Although she admits that having him away for long periods of time puts a strain on their relationship, Linda also knows how much these trips mean to Jon.

Ever since he was young, Jon has relished opportunities to escape the routine of everyday life, explore new places, and find outlets for his competitive spirit. This inner drive for excitement is etched deeply in Jon’s character. Always independent, he truly is someone who follows own compass. Furthermore, when Jon chooses to go somewhere, there will frequently be a larger goal in mind. The harder this goal might be to accomplish, the more likely Jon will be to set his sights on it. For example, if he finds a popular hiking route through a wilderness area, the first thing he’ll do is research the fastest hiking times recorded on that route. Then, of course, he’ll set out to break the record. Couple Hitchhiking to Hospital To those who don’t know him, Jon’s approach to traveling may seem a little odd. Some might call it obsessive even. When asked about her husband’s habits, Linda cracks a knowing smile.

“He’s been that way since the day I met him… On our first date Jon took me rock climbing. After giving me a run down on the equipment, Jon quickly roped up, looked at his watch, and took off up the wall. He reached the top and repelled back down, looking annoyed. For a moment, I thought he was upset with me. It turned out he was just trying to beat his personal record. That’s Jon for you.”

One thing that must be said about Jon Letko – his life is rarely lacking excitement. Each trip he takes seems to generate a new batch of fascinating stories and encounters. One such adventure saw Jon head out to the east coast for a trek through the Appalachian mountain range, which spans from Georgia in the south all the way up to Maine in the north. In 2007, Jon set out to conquer the entirety of the Appalachian Trail – a grueling physical challenge of over 2,000 miles. Appalachian Trail Sign Naturally, his goal was to break the record for fastest completion time. However, Jon Letko ran into some bad luck early on. Only a week into the journey he got terribly sick after drinking some contaminated water (a faulty water filter was to blame). Not long after recovering from his illness, a bout of tendonitis further delayed Jon’s progress. At this point, he realized, there was little hope of breaking the record – he’d lost too much time already. Although against his very nature, Jon convinced himself to take it slow for once. Instead of focusing solely on time, he would try to enjoy the scenery and the experience. Looking back, it was this decision which caused Jon to fundamentally shift his world view.

Given the incredible length of the trail, a hiker cannot hope to carry enough food for the entire trip. Instead, they must load up on food periodically along the way. Oftentimes, this involves stashing food stores in nearby towns along the route. Normally, Jon would make these pit stops as fast as possible in order to get back on the trail. However, this time was different. Instead of high-tailing it out of town with a backpack full of Clif bars and freeze-dried meals, Jon spent a few hours exploring each podunk town and talking to the people who lived there.

Jon Letko on the Appalachian Trail What Jon Letko saw opened his eyes. Immediately noticeable were the extreme levels of poverty and lack of infrastructure in the Appalachian region. Walking down derelict dusty streets, Jon marveled at how unrecognizable these towns were compared to the America he was familiar with. These were areas of Kentucky, of West Virginia, of Pennsylvania – but to the untrained eye, they were easily mistakable for third world countries. To his further dismay, Jon observed, medical facilities were few and far between. Those he did visit along his journey were woefully understaffed and lacking in both quality supplies and proper instruments. What bothered Jon Letko the most, however, was complete absence of dental care. Most of the children he met along the way had never seen a dentist in their lives. With many families living in the grips of poverty, parents simply didn’t have the resources to send their kids to the dentist. Also absent was any sort of education surrounding dental hygiene. Jon met hundreds of children living in excruciating pain. Some had teeth literally rotting in their mouths. Without ever being schooled in the importance of basic preventative care, these children were helpless.

Jon Letko couldn’t believe it. As a professional, his heart sank for these kids. In Jon’s mind, everyone deserves access to basic dental care. Dental health is essential to a person’s quality of life, and Jon found it deeply unsettling that this was occurring in his own country. Why was nobody doing anything? Feeling incredibly frustrated, Jon resolved to tackle this problem himself. After all, he had the expertise. Now semi-retired, he also had the time. Jon proceeded to cut his journey short – an uncharacteristic choice, but a noble one. Jon Letko headed home with a new goal in mind: bringing quality dental care to the children of Appalachia.