Tomme Bjerke poses with chidren during Global Dental Relief mission
Every year since 2001, dedicated and compassionate dental hygienists have joined Global Dental Relief (GDR) to bring top-notch dental care to children around the world. By volunteering on a weeklong field dental clinic in countries including Nepal, Guatemala, India, Kenya, and Cambodia, hygienists have a made lasting impact in impoverished communities, giving children the gift of a healthy smile and the tools and knowledge to maintain a healthy mouth. In the process, our intrepid volunteers have received a priceless gift of their own—the gift of knowing they made a real difference in the life of an underprivileged child.
Many children who grow up poor in developing countries never get the chance to visit a dental office. In these regions, trained dental personnel are scarce, and the cost of care can be prohibitive for a family that must struggle daily just to make ends meet. At the same time, sugar is more commonplace than ever, and there is a startling lack of awareness of the importance of routine personal dental care. The result is a huge unmet need in the developing world for consistent, high-quality dental services an education. That’s where Global Dental Relief (GDR), and hundreds of terrific volunteers who join us every year, come in.
Volunteers such as Tomme Bjerke, a dental hygienist from Minnesota who in October 2014 joined a dental clinic run by Global Dental Relief in Nepal. Even though this was her first time volunteering with GDR, she said, “Within the first seven days of my trip, I was already planning my next.” Tomme signed up to return to Nepal last May.
When asked motivated her decision to return, Tomme replied, “The impact these children have made on me is unbelievable and I can’t wait to watch them grow and change over the years.”
GDR recognizes the importance of follow-up care, returning volunteers back to the same communities every 18 months to provide dental care to children. The children GDR treats graduate from high school with strong teeth and the know-how to keep their mouths clean and healthy—knowledge which they will be able to pass on to the next generation when the time comes.
Even though Tomme has a rich and fulfilling life as it is, between her three young daughters and her job as a dental hygienist, she is dedicated to GDR’s mission because she said, “Volunteering gives me purpose outside of my daily life… even halfway around the world. I’m giving, yet I’m receiving—it’s a win in my book!”
Becky Crump, a dental hygienist and eight-time Global Dental Relief volunteer, echoes this sentiment. She said, “The direct effect on the children we treat is unquestionable; however, the impact on each volunteer is immediately palpable. The wonderment that is experienced by first time volunteers when they realize the true impact of their actions renews my passion for this work each trip.”
When Becky first travelled with Global Dental Relief to Guatemala in 2010, she was uneasy about her first experience traveling to a developing country. However, the fact that GDR’s field dental clinics each consist of 20 volunteers, including two seasoned trip leaders, put her mind at ease, and she said that her worries “were completely silenced after the first few hours working in the clinic.”
In addition to Guatemala, Becky has since returned to volunteer with Global Dental Relief in India and Cambodia, experiencing a wide variety of cultural landscapes along the way. The one commonality Becky has experienced across this diverse group of countries? “I have yet to come home from a trip without leaving a piece of my heart behind in the hands of a child.”
Colorado-based hygienist Rene Hart also keeps coming back to volunteer with Global Dental Relief. She would be lying if she said the huge hugs grateful kids love to give her following treatment didn’t play into it. As far back as her first year of hygiene school, Rene knew she wanted to use the skills she was learning to help those less fortunate, so she signed up for a GDR clinic in Guatemala as a nonmedical volunteer, serving as a chairside assistant to the hygienists and dentists in the clinic and having a blast teaching kids proper toothbrushing techniques through games and song. She had such a great experience that, once she completed dental hygiene school, she returned to volunteer with GDR on our first clinic in Kenya in 2013—this time with her husband-to-be in tow as a nonmedical volunteer.
The experience of giving dental care to children who had so little in the way of material goods and yet were incredibly happy and bright proved to be a wonderful bonding experience for Rene and her husband. They were amazed and humbled by the positivity of the children. Rene said that she “never once heard a single one of them complain.”
She adds, “Seeing how much good GDR brings to all the children they treat is truly hard to explain until you see it yourself. The children are so thankful for what we are doing for them and it is one of the most remarkable things I have ever witnessed.” To this day, Rene and her husband Matt remain friends with several of their fellow volunteers with whom they shared this unforgettable experience.
Thanks to Global Dental Relief’s pioneering model of care, a field clinic consisting of around 20 volunteers is able to provide full dental care—including cleanings, sealants, restorations, extractions and toothbrushing instruction—to an average of 100 children per day. GDR supplies all the equipment and takes care of the in-country logistics, so that all volunteers have to bring are their skills, appetite for adventure, and a commitment to improving the lives of children who otherwise might never access professional dental care. Volunteers work hard over the seven days of an average clinic, yet, as past volunteers are always quick to point out, the smiles on the faces of the children who have just been given the gift of dental care as well as the sense of satisfaction that comes from helping children in need make it all extremely worthwhile.
Volunteers also have the opportunity to explore the host country, with Global Dental Relief providing immersive and exciting cultural programming during and immediately following each of our clinics:
- Volunteers can trek the Himalayas in Nepal, culminating in breathtaking views of Mt. Everest.
- In Guatemala, the options for exploring range from ziplining in the tropical forest to sipping locally grown coffee along the cobbled streets of the old capital, where Mayan and Spanish colonial cultures commingle.
- A safari in the world-famous Maasai Mara wildlife preserve in Kenya is an opportunity to get up-close and personal with giraffes, lions, elephants, and other wild residents of the Serengeti.
- Volunteering in the Ladakh region of India brings wonder in the face of mountain-top Buddhist temples near the “rooftop of the world.”
- GDR’s work in Cambodia takes place just outside the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex, the world’s largest religious monument, widely known as the “eighth wonder of the world.”
Thanks to the work of Global Dental Relief and the hundreds of volunteers who join us each year, thousands of children susceptible to crippling dental disease can now boast bright, healthy smiles.
As volunteer Becky Crump points out, “Each child that sets foot inside a GDR clinic not only receives comprehensive compassionate dental care, they are also educated on the importance of oral health and given a toothbrush. The ripple effect of that action can change the trajectory of that child’s life.”
The positive effects of quality dental care and hygiene education are immeasurable. Kids free of pain and with strong teeth and gums are better able to focus in school and eat nutritiously, contributing to a positive cycle of healthy children ready to grow into educated, productive caretakers of the next generation. And the effect of volunteering on the volunteer him or herself can be just as profound on a personal level.
Volunteer hygienist Rene Hart said, “Being on these trips has made me appreciate everything I have. You never know what rough living or rough times are until you have seen what some of these children have been through.”
Yet by the time they step out of the dental chair, “They all have the biggest smiles on their faces.” And, as often as not, they have a gift of their own to give—a great, big thankful hug.
William Mateo is the country coordinator at Global Dental Relief. Kimberly Troggio is the director of Global Dental Relief. She can be [email protected] or at (800) 543-1171. To learn more about Global Dental Relief, visit our website at globaldentalrelief.org, call us at (303) 858-8857 or email [email protected]. Global Dental Relief is a 501(c)(3) charity.