Elizabeth Polak-Silva, CDA, of Bristol, Connecticut, has realized a lifelong dream: to travel abroad on a dental mission trip.

From May 26 to June 3, 2017, Elizabeth went to Antigua, Guatemala, with a group of 14 dentists and dental students from the University of Connecticut (UConn). They traveled under the auspices of SPEAR Open Wide Foundation, a humanitarian dental outreach organization that takes trips such as this one each year to Guatemala.

The mission of the 2017 Guatemala trip was to provide dental services to as many people in need as possible, Elizabeth shares. Ultimately, 125 people were seen, with 222 procedures completed, she says. These procedures included total restorations, endodontic treatments and extractions.

“I am beyond proud and honored to say that I went on a dental mission trip to Guatemala, where I was very blessed to utilize all the skills and knowledge that I have acquired over the years,” says Elizabeth, who is originally from Poland. “This was my dream for a long time. I think it is fair to say that it was one of the most meaningful goals on my bucket list.”

Here, Elizabeth further discusses her Guatemala trip, as well as the rewards of volunteerism and her plans for the future.

Dental Assistant Life: You’ve always wanted to take a global dental mission trip. Why was this your dream?

Elizabeth Polak-Silva: It is one thing to want to travel the world — but exploring the world becomes so much more rewarding when it involves reaching beyond taking in the beautiful views of the surrounding landscape. It was important for me to feel and experience something extraordinary, rather than to just see something extraordinary. I find it truly fascinating to learn about a foreign culture through volunteering, because I get to understand it better and appreciate it more from its most vulnerable, authentic and genuine side.

How does it feel to have fulfilled this dream?

It definitely feels inspiring and motivating to do more good and spread more love in the world. It made me worry less about things I think I cannot do and put my energy into trying to achieve goals that may intimidate me. I must admit: It was somewhat scary to travel abroad with a group of people whom I did not know to a place where I had never been and did not know much about. I worried about the climate and food. We had to get vaccines done beforehand. I worried I might get sick. But I had the time of my life, and made new friends and many unforgettable memories.

What were some of the highlights of the trip?

This was an enriching experience in many ways. I met dental professionals who shared similarities and differences in training and approach taught in that part of the world as compared with the United States. And I learned about and experienced Guatemalan culture, history and traditions.

What was the most rewarding aspect of the trip?

Seeing how much of a difference we were making [at a dental clinic in Peronia, Guatemala]. Each day, people were leaving with at least some dental work done, even just one restoration. People in pain were leaving with smiles on their faces. Very anxious children were conquering their fears and cooperating for extractions. It was absolutely incredible! To give someone your time is priceless. It is indeed the most precious gift you can offer.

Why do you believe it is important for dental assistants to volunteer?

When you volunteer, especially in the medical field, you are there out of the goodness of your heart. Each one of us who traveled to Guatemala could have spent that time differently, but we chose to help those who are less fortunate. That is undeniably admirable and inspiring.

Why would you recommend global dental mission trips to other dental assistants?

Photos of me volunteering in Guatemala hang on the wall at the office where I work. Many patients and co-workers have asked me about my trip and congratulated me. These positive reactions give me a sense of pride and accomplishment. I wish for other dental assistants to feel the same.

Do you have plans to take another dental mission trip in the future?

I do not have any solid plans just yet but know without a doubt that this definitely will not be my last trip. I received my bachelor’s degree from UConn in 2016, and my goal now is to pursue either dental hygiene or dentistry at UConn. Both programs offer students the chance to participate in mission trips. Now that I had an opportunity to take a trip, I know I will be the first one to volunteer to go.

About Elizabeth Polak-Silva

In 2013, Elizabeth earned an associate degree in science (general studies) from Tunxis Community College in Farmington, Connecticut. In 2012, she earned DANB’s Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification; and in 2015, she was named a winner of the DALE Foundation’s Liz Koch Memorial Scholarship. In 2016, Elizabeth earned a Bachelor of General Studies, with a health and society theme (pre-dental track), from UConn. Currently, she is preparing to take the Dental Admission Test and apply to dental schools.

Elizabeth has been working since 2012 as a dental assistant at Kids Dental Care in Bristol, Connecticut. She also regularly volunteers through Mission of Mercy. “I have been participating in Mission of Mercy events every single year since 2012,” she says. “I have always thought that volunteering is the best way to get involved in the community.”