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The starfish effect: Volunteering in dentistry helps you make a difference in a healthy way

Jan. 16, 2017
Kyle Isaacs reminds professionals in dentistry benefit from volunteering by feeling more healthy too.

By Kyle Isaacs, RDHEP, BHS

Have you ever heard the "starfish story"? This is a story about a boy gently throwing stranded starfish into the ocean. An old man walking at the water's edge notices the boy and asks him why he is doing this. The man believes that the boy's efforts are for naught, as he will never be able to save all the thousands that have washed up on shore. As he questions the boy, the boy throws another starfish back in the ocean and responds by saying, "I made a difference to that one!" (This story is adapted from "The Star Thrower" by Loren Eiseley.) There are many variations to the story, but they all remind us that for each person we provide care for, we will make a difference in that person's life. One way to have an effect is to give your time by volunteering.

Maybe you think you don't have time to volunteer. Your days are full with work and family and all they demand. Maybe you want to volunteer but don't know how to get started. Perhaps you need something more from your life. Our lives can start to feel predictable and boring, leading to burnout, frustration, and disillusionment. Trying something new such as volunteering can change all that and can be just what we need to invigorate our lives.

Providing service to the community helps fill the gaps in resources, strengthens communities and social connections, and improves the lives of others.1 It is a great way to meet people from all walks of life, creating connectedness as well as tolerance for people who are different from you.2 It also helps the volunteers to forget their own troubles, which can reduce stress. This in turn increases good health outcomes due to greater feelings of happiness, strengthening the immune system.2

Volunteering also increases self-esteem.2 Volunteers have lower mortality rates than nonvolunteers, decreased rates of depression, and better functional ability.1 What's not to love about all these positive outcomes? Seems like a win-win for everyone!

For many years, I worked in private dentistry and was able to take care of those who had money or insurance. Often I felt a void, wondering about all the people unable to access care. Volunteering enriched and invigorated my life. As dental hygienists, giving back to our communities by volunteering not only increases access to care, but it also has many benefits for those who give. Volunteering is also a way to network for paid positions, meet new people, and learn new skills.

Barriers to participation

If the giver reaps benefits, then why don't more people participate? What prevents some people from offering to give back and others to volunteer regularly? As a health-care provider, I feel it is my duty to volunteer-but this does not mean I need to do it weekly or even monthly and stress myself out. It's about finding a balance that works for me. Maybe you will find that balance as well.

In addition to time, some people don't volunteer because they do not know of organizations with opportunities in their area such as the big Mission of Mercy events. Others are afraid to do something that is out of their normal routine. The way I look at it, if there are no opportunities in your area, create your own.

Ann Thome, RDH, caught the volunteering bug when a longtime patient voiced concerns about his wife's oral health. She had dementia and was living in a long-term care facility that was not meeting her oral health needs. This opportunity was perfect for Ann because she had wanted to volunteer for a long time but always came up with excuses, such as not having the right equipment or not knowing "how to go about it." Because Ann is a PHDHP (public health dental hygiene practitioner) in Pennsylvania, she can see patients in nursing homes.

Ann decided to help her patient and brushed and scaled his wife's teeth. He "could hardly contain his enthusiasm," and Ann felt so great helping to "alleviate his worries." She said that the "experience meant more to her than any paycheck!" And yes, she now wants to find more opportunities to volunteer after getting "a little taste of it." Now Ann is ready to find more ways to volunteer in her area; it just took a little nudge to get her going.

Getting started

There are many ways to give back-direct patient care, boards, planning, public health, as well

as numerous nondental opportunities. If you want to use your dental hygiene skills, start by doing some research online to find out what is happening in your area. Some local dental offices will participate with the ADA's Give Kids A Smile providing free services for low income children. Where I live we have the "dental van," the "tooth taxi," and county programs that organize oral abnormality screenings and provide sealants, screenings, and prophies.

Oral health education volunteers are needed in schools or senior centers, as these populations tend to have the poorest oral health and greatest lack of access to care. Consider volunteering for ADHA or your local component; there are always board and committee positions needing help. Organizing a run or walk with the help from your local component to raise awareness and money for oral cancer can be a fun activity. Joining forces with other community activities (e.g., health fairs, school events, carnivals, sports tournaments) where many people come together are more options for screenings.

Most states have a Mission of Mercy (sponsored by America's Dentists Care Foundation), an annual or semiannual event. Local health centers may have existing dental programs that need help with screenings, preventive dental hygiene services, sealants, fluoride varnish, and WIC programs. Visit findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov to find one near you.2 Check with your local component or dental society to see what opportunities are available. Of course, there are mission trips, which are exciting if you like to travel, but you do have to pay for your airfare, program fee, travel insurance, and other miscellaneous costs. You can even volunteer for a nondental group. Many states accept some of the hours you volunteer toward continuing education credit as well.

Keeping the momentum

Nancy Brohawn, RDH, has volunteered in various ways over the years. She does it because it seems like the right thing to do and she hopes she is making a difference. She has volunteered in the schools, has been on the board of the Delaware Oral Health Coalition to help increase access to care, and is the dental hygiene community services coordinator for her state and component, and has volunteered at many events such as Mission of Mercy and Dental Impact at RDH Under One Roof. She often tells her patients that her paid work gets in the way of being able to do all she would like to do!

By being involved in different organizations, Nancy has learned skills that could lead to additional career choices and she has a better grasp on the ins and outs of public health. The unmet oral health needs keep her motivated. She gets frustrated when she tries to enlist the help of other dental professionals. Many don't understand and want to know how much they will be paid. Nancy says that volunteering is "just a part of me." She would love to get help organizing an oral cancer walk to include screenings and to raise awareness. She envisions bringing a free clinic and Mission of Mercy to her home state of Delaware.

You can even pass on your commitment to your children. I included my children when they were younger and I know it helped them to appreciate all that they had. It makes them better people, allows for learning new skills, and teaches them the importance of helping others. We served food at Thanksgiving for the Salvation Army, for example; it was fun to help others and allowed us to do something together. My younger daughter was a Big Sister while attending college and I know it made a difference in her life and her Little Sister's.

Jasmin Haley, RDH, got her start in volunteering early in her life in her church. Her mother was an advocate of "using time for meaningful causes."

Jasmin truly knows the importance of giving back and continues to do so in her church and in various ways in the dental world. She says that "the value of giving and sharing brings the greatest joy in my life as I watch how my efforts make a real difference in the lives of others." Like me, she knows the limitations of providing dental hygiene care to those with money and insurance and therefore volunteers for the bigger events such as Mission of Mercy. Each time she volunteers, Jasmin enjoys "connecting on a higher level with every person." By giving back, she sees the hope that is instilled in those who have little or nothing. Like all of us who volunteer, not having enough time has been one of the major stumbling blocks she has encountered. Even so, she will continue with her volunteering and has plans to someday do it internationally.

Volunteering in the profession

When I was in dental hygiene school, I don't remember going out into the community to provide preventive services, or planning or implementing any public health programs. Things have changed in the past 34 years and now more and more dental hygiene programs are including volunteering into the curriculum as well as encouraging it after graduation. Students acquire experience, learn, reap all the benefits, and help to provide good health outcomes from providing services as well as a better understanding of the needs of the community.3 Some schools call this service learning; regardless of the nomenclature, it is a win-win situation for all involved.

Do you think health-care providers should be required to volunteer and give back? If so, then the definition of volunteering would not hold true. Why do some people volunteer while others do not? Aren't we all busy these days? No matter what we do in our society, people will always need extra help paying bills, buying groceries, paying for health care, glasses, clothes, shelter. It is easy to say "Just get a job," but for many people, that might not be a reality on many levels. It is not my place or anyone else's place to judge. There are others who might be working two jobs and still cannot afford to pay for dental care.

Needless to say, people will still be in need and volunteers are one way to help bridge the gap even if it is a drop in the bucket; don't forget the starfish story!

Most of us who volunteer do so because we know it makes a difference and it makes us feel great! I always feel on top of the world after a volunteer stint, and the smiles from the recipients are priceless. Never forget that if you can make a difference in one person's life, then you have succeeded. If you have not volunteered, take that first step. Try something small and once you do, I bet you will get the volunteer bug, wanting to do more because you too will feel on top of the world! RDH

Stumbling blocks in volunteering

Volunteering is not without glitches. Paige Seaborg, RDH, has been volunteering for a long time. She says her first experience was an oral cancer abnormality screening in Seattle that also included haircuts, foot washing, medical evaluations, a meal, and more. She told me that "we had no lights, only disposable mouth mirrors and gloves. The person in charge did not show up until the last minute and we didn't have any real sense of what we were supposed to do or the flow of our part of the event. We had very low-grade toothbrushes with which to teach oral hygiene."

Although there were frustrations with the coordinator and less-than-ideal conditions, the event not only provided needed screenings and care, it also nurtured Paige. She recalls being "grateful for my education and training, grateful for the ease I have in daily life with transportation and ability to seek health care when needed. I felt amazed at the kindness of the people whom we were screening. It was a learning experience, in seeing the degrees of mental illness among homelessness and hearing about some of their challenges in simple daily life."

There were and still are other volunteer opportunities that Paige has given her time and expertise to help with-some easier than others. She experienced barriers to volunteering when training necessities such as HIPAA and OSHA requirements meant redoing courses. She's taken tuberculosis tests and filled out a lot of paperwork.

The time it took to get properly trained or credentialed made those opportunities less inviting. Sometimes ethical issues come up with other people with whom you are working, making it tough to feel good about what you are doing. Paige continues to volunteer for a four-day medical and dental clinic similar to Mission of Mercy. She loves the way this event is put on and how the patients are treated.

Kyle Isaacs, RDHEP, BHS, lives near Corvallis, Oregon, where she works four days a week in a dental office. She also owns a company, Miles 2 Smiles LLC, and provides dental hygiene care in churches, private homes, and schools. She is a member of the American Dental Hygienists' Association and serves on the board of trustees for the Oregon Dental Hygienists' Association. She loves to volunteer and comes from a family with many dental professionals. She has been a dental hygienist for 32 years.


1. Benefits of Volunteering. Corporation for National and Community Service website. http://www.nationalservice.gov/serve-your-community/benefits-volunteering. Accessed November 28, 2016.
2. Community Service: Top 10 Reasons to Volunteer. TritonLink. https://students.ucsd.edu/student-life/involvement/community/reasons.html. Accessed November 28, 2016.
3. Simmer-Beck M, Gadbury-Amyot C, Williams KB, Keselyak NT, Branson B, Mitchell TV. Measuring the short-term effects of incorporating academic service learning throughout a dental hygiene curriculum. Int J Dent Hyg. 2013;11(4):260-266.