Over the years, we’ve heard from dental assistants who have taken dental mission trips all over the world. You’ve said that the experience is like no other, and that volunteering your time is one of the most important gifts you can give.
Elizabeth Ledford, a 2017 Liz Koch Memorial Scholarship winner, is among those dental assistants who have traveled abroad in their careers and can speak to the rewards of the experience.
After graduating from a formal dental assisting education program, Elizabeth (pictured at right) spent the week of Feb. 10-17, 2018, in Catacamas, Honduras. There, she volunteered with a group to help provide comprehensive dental care to the underserved, through Global Health Outreach.
These volunteers took day trips to four outlying villages to hold free community healthcare clinics for local residents. They also provided medical and dental exams and toothbrushes for students at a local school. In total, the team saw just under 1,000 patients over the course of the week.
Here, Elizabeth discusses some of her experiences in Honduras. She also shares five reasons why dental assistants may want to take a similar dental mission trip themselves.
1. To See and Experience New Places
Sometimes, it can make all the difference to step outside your comfort zone and familiar environment. By doing this, we’re able to meet new people and see new places. Elizabeth has visited many locations as a tourist, including Taiwan, South Korea and Ireland. But this was the first time she traveled as a volunteer — an experience that made an impact on her as much as on those she was helping.
“I enjoy traveling and experiencing different cultures, but going as a volunteer added a whole new layer of meaning to the trip,” she says. “I feel like I benefited as much from the trip as the people I served. It changed my perspective on life and reminded me what is most important.”
2. To Help Patients Who Might Not Otherwise Have Access to Dental Care
It’s no secret that dental assistants are compassionate and enjoy helping others, whether it’s in the dental office, the classroom or a setting where they’re volunteering. Especially on a dental mission trip, there are many opportunities to lend a compassionate hand and share knowledge with patients who might not usually have access to dental care. And the patients can be especially appreciative.
Elizabeth definitely observed this in Honduras. “The best part of the trip was seeing how much people appreciated us personally, and not just what we could do for them,” she says. “Even when we had to tell patients we couldn’t treat something, their response was one of gratitude for our willingness to come and help their community.”
She adds that treating children was especially rewarding. “They were tremendously brave and inspired me with their positive attitudes toward life even though they lacked so many things a lot of kids may take for granted.”
3. To Connect with Other Dental Professionals
Taking a dental mission trip also can provide an opportunity to connect with other dental and healthcare professionals. For example, in Honduras, Elizabeth worked and learned alongside approximately 15 volunteers, including doctors, pharmacists, nurses, dentists and another fellow dental assistant.
“I enjoyed building new friendships with my teammates, as we experienced everything together,” she recalls. “Working with new people provided me with a chance to grow, and I learned a lot from the dentists and the other assistant on the team.”
4. To Hone Your Skill Sets
Volunteering is a great way to gain new knowledge and hands-on experience.
“Volunteering has enhanced my skills as a dental assistant,” Elizabeth says. “Because of the patients’ limited access to healthcare, I gained firsthand experience with numerous dental diseases I never thought I’d see outside of a textbook. I was able to observe firsthand a wide variety of dental and oral diseases, many of which were in very advanced stages.”
Elizabeth didn’t just practice her dental assisting skills during the trip, but also had opportunities to fine-tune other soft skills as well. “My communication skills have also improved,” she continues. “I learned to reach across the language barrier to welcome a patient, provide instructions during a procedure, or ensure that the correct information was being communicated by the translator.”
5. To Practice Thinking on Your Feet
Elizabeth says while the trip was ultimately rewarding, there were times when she was tested. For example, going to work in a new environment was challenging, but also educational. She often had to think on her feet.
“As awesome as I think they are, dental mission trips aren’t for everyone,” she says. “You have to work without a lot of the things you probably take for granted in your office, and you have to be super flexible. You will never know what to expect, and you need to be okay with that.”
Want to volunteer? To learn more about dental assistant volunteer opportunities, visit the DALE Foundation website.
Have you taken a dental mission trip or volunteered in any other capacity? Tell us all about it!