Last February, I spent a few days (okay, a few minutes) working as a dental assistant and I loved it.
It happened when I accompanied an interdisciplinary group of practitioners on a visit to our Open Wide facilities in Guatemala. During the trip, we opened a new clinic and met with community leaders to talk about the tremendous progress Open Wide has made. But I also got to put on scrubs and gloves for a while and assist the doctors at chairside.
I loved the experience because I felt I got a sense of what I have always heard dentists talk about as being a defining purpose in their profession: that gratifying feeling you get when you see a patient's reaction to receiving life-changing care. To participate, even in a small way, in the actual delivery of care, to see the genuine gratitude in the eyes and smiles of the patients we treated, gave me a new appreciation for what it means to be on the front lines of this humanitarian effort. It reminded me of a simple but powerful truth: it feels good to do good.
That realization brought me back to when we were launching the Open Wide Foundation in 2012. I remembered how that was a big part of our founding vision - that Open Wide would not only change the lives of the people receiving care, but also enrich the lives of those giving the care. We knew if their experience was just as gratifying as the experience the patients received, we would get volunteers spreading the word and coming back again.
And that’s exactly what happened. We’ve had dentists return two or three times or more. We’ve had study clubs make it an annual bonding expedition. I know of dentists who took sons or daughters along on their first trip and some of those children have now come back to volunteer again - this time as dentists or dental students. In other words, the people who participate as volunteers become moved and inspired in a powerful way and they leave thinking, “I want to do that again.”
I think there are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that people are fundamentally good. Most people love the idea of doing something meaningful for others, but it can be hard to see how to make a significant difference. So if you give people a simple pathway to making that contribution, they’ll seize the opportunity. Open Wide does that.
The other reason is that the Open Wide experience involves more of a personal commitment than many other charitable causes. After all, it is one thing to write a check in support of a good cause. It’s another thing to donate your time and to use your special skills to bring relief and joy to people who need your professional attention most desperately. At that point, it’s not just about the simple satisfaction of giving; it’s about the special rewards that come from sharing a profound human experience.
A model of success
The Open Wide Foundation opened the first clinic in Peronia with a five-year plan to create a facility that was self-sustaining, where we would eventually turn the daily operations over to the community. And at that five-year mark, the hand-off to being self-administered came to fruition.
Today, the main clinic in Peronia is run by local dentists and supported by local staff, who continue to welcome visiting volunteer dentists. The maintenance of the clinic equipment is supported by a local sponsor. The mayor’s budget takes into account the building’s upkeep. Whole new structures - a technical training center right next door, a municipal building and a new park in the adjoining areas - have sprung up in the intervening years, raising the profile of Peronia as a focal point for community services. Open Wide's training protocol manuals are being shared with other municipalities in the region and the framework is being promoted as a model for health systems nationally. Perhaps most impressively, the model we have developed has been shared by the local county Director of Health at the Institute of Tropical Medicine as a model of success for how government can partner with private stakeholders with great results.
And I am proud to say that our passion for this project has had a motivating effect on those around me. On two occasions in the past several months, groups of practitioners from special study clubs I have led surprised me during workshops where I was speaking to present generous contributions to the Open Wide Foundation. Many of these doctors had also contributed their time in Guatemala. They knew firsthand what Open Wide was all about, they had their own stories to tell about their experience there, and they wanted to acknowledge me in a way that kept the momentum going. I have received many honors and tokens of appreciation over the years, but I can honestly say none have touched my heart as much as those gifts.
One call that can change lives - including yours
I invite you to join us and be a part of this growing phenomenon where you can change the lives of scores of men, women and children while having a life-changing experience yourself.
What is required of you? A $1,000 donation (all of which goes toward equipment and supplies in the clinics), your travel costs and four days of clinical dentistry. How do you make arrangements? It starts with one phone call. Give the team at Open Wide your dates of availability and they’ll guide you from there. You book your air travel and they’ll put you in touch with a travel agent who can handle ground transportation and accommodations - even arranging tourist expeditions.
Come alone and make new friends. Or come with your team, family members, or study club colleagues - there is no better bonding experience than going on a mission to an exotic new environment to do great things together. But whatever you do, make the call now. I promise it will be the first step to an experience you will never forget. And if I happen to be there in Guatemala when you are, I may even end up being your chairside assistant.