A Salsa Fiesta helps to send medical teams from Maine to the Dominican Republic.

Inviting Portland’s salsa community to take part in the annual fundraiser for the nonprofit Partners for Rural Health in the Dominican Republic was a natural fit – and made for a thoroughly entertaining event that raised more than $7,500.

“There’s got to be at least 40 of my salsa dancers here tonight,” said Kristin Sutton, owner of Avant Dance and Event Center in Westbrook, which hosted the Salsa Fiesta on Feb. 4. “And the funds go to a good cause.”

Twice a year, Partners for Rural Health brings 50 to 75 Mainers to the Dominican Republic to provide medical care to more than 1,200 patients per trip.

“This program has been in existence for 22 years, and not that many people here know about it,” said Mary Berg, a semi-retired physical therapist who has been on nine of the missions. “It’s kind of a hidden gem. Not only are we providing health care to the Dominican Republic, but we’re also training the future medical workers of Maine.”

“Our goal is to see those with the least access and the greatest need,” said Whitney Lutz, president of Partners for Rural Health in the Dominican Republic. “Because of that, we really go to remote areas. Some of them you have to hike to.”

Volunteers pay for their airfare and room and board for a 10- to 14-day trip, typically in January or June.

“Some people have to take it out of their vacation time, so it is a big sacrifice,” said Alicia Greenwald, who has been on four missions as a nurse practitioner. “But I love teaching, and I love to travel and be out of my comfort zone. It’s really a collaboration because it’s a trip to train nursing students coming from Maine. They take a course in rural community health, and this is their hands-on experience, providing medical care to very poor people in the Dominican Republic.”

“A big reason I wanted to go to USM is that they focus a lot on community outreach,” said Erika Shell, a nursing student looking forward to her first Dominican Republic mission in June.

Leonor McGinn, a retired nurse originally from Colombia, is going in March, a trip that was originally planned for January but was postponed due to mudslides. “This is on my bucket list,” she said. “I want to give back a little bit. America was good to me.”

Family physician Cathie Crute of Portland went last January. “It was my first medical trip,” she said. “I retired about a year ago, and now I have the energy to do it. My favorite thing was doing house calls.”

Volunteers include not only doctors and nurses but interpreters, dentists, occupational therapists and dietitians. Tony Taiani of Windham went as an athletic training student at USM, and now he’s planning a return trip with his wife, Nicole Taiani, a massage therapist. The Taianis were among the dozens of people who took a short salsa class and danced throughout the fiesta.

The evening included live music by Primo Cubano, a performance by the Alma Cubana salsa group and a silent auction.

“I really love Primo Cubano, and I like the cause and salsa dancing, and there aren’t that many opportunities to do it in Maine,” said Riley Neugebauer of Lincolnville.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer from Scarborough. She can be reached at:

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