Why volunteer for a dental mission? After all, the countries you’ll visit are often off the beaten path and the people you will serve lead quite different lives from your own. They may have different ideologies, strange customs, and, undoubtedly you will work hard and not receive any monetary compensation. There are a million reasons to stay home: family, work, and the inevitable quest to buy the next item.
Two years ago, my wife asked me to join her in her newly discovered passion, dental missions. Why would I do this? As an orthodontist, what could I possibly contribute? She’s an experienced pediatric dentist, her value is immediately obvious. And beside that, where would we go? My stomach doesn’t travel well.
Realizing that we had entered a new phase of our lives, with our children off in college, I begrudgingly agreed to accompany her to Cambodia. A country that I didn’t understand nor did I particularly feel the need to understand. I agreed to go for the selfish reason that I was somewhat bored with the children away, and I wanted to recreate the shared interests that Jamie and I had before we had children, and became more interested in being parents than being a husband and wife.
And to my surprise, I found that life is still as unpredictable today, as it was when we were young recently graduated, recently married naive fresh faced young people. I found that I love volunteering for all the reasons that initially worried me and kept me from doing it earlier: I am intrigued by the different cultures and their ideologies. I have found that their unique customs give me perspective. In short, I have come to understand myself more clearly through my volunteerism. Our destinations, though not mainstream or highly sought after, allow us to see the people and culture for what it is, rather than the spin and shine created by a tourist bureau.
Through my journey into the unknown world of volunteerism I have realized that I am old and wise enough to know that I can question things that I have been certain of throughout my adult life. Mostly it is a willingness to pause and evaluate my own life in light of the lives of the less fortunate who I have met on my missions. Do we really need all that we have? How do they remain positive in such adverse conditions?
Though I am not paid for my services, I am enriched when I examine a nervous child and with a smile or my mispronounced greeting, allay their fears. I am elevated by the volunteers that surround me. Proud when my wife falls asleep, exhausted during her lunch break. Honored to be associated with a couple that works tirelessly throughout the year to raise money for the KIDS organization. And I am humbled by a woman who travels alone to remote villages to fluoridate teeth and deliver solar powered reading lights.
As I sit beside Bob Renner doing examinations (he and his wife Purobi Phillips are the founders of KIDS International), I realize that he is old enough to be my father (just barely), yet young enough that I can’t keep pace with his volume of work. I realize too, that Purobi is a rare individual who can be blunt and disarmingly honest, yet utterly committed to saving the world child by child, and I wonder if I can be like her.
Selfishly, I enjoy re-prioritizing my life for one week. It’s all about, and only about, the children. Though my family, my business and my life in New Jersey is never far from my thoughts, everyone has to understand my commitment for these seven days.
Volunteerism has given me the opportunity to recreate a very special time in my life when each day brought a new adventure and life was a process of discovery. I am honored to be part of this team.
~ Dr. Jon, Fort Lee, New Jersey