by Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA
Adapted from the article written for the Association of Dental Implant Auxiliaries in January 2009 and the Florida Dental Hygiene Association in June 2010
Volunteering has been credited with improving the immune system, depression, self-esteem, and general well-being. Sharing your talents, whether dental related or not, often provides different rewards than those received from employment. It can enhance your performance at your "day job" too!
Although I have had a very rewarding career in dental hygiene and education, I believe my most exceptional work has happened via my recent volunteer opportunities. The hugs of children receiving a new toothbrush – children who previously had none or shared one brush with siblings – is incredibly heartwarming. A group of migrant children wrote a song for the "dental lady" that brought tears to my eyes. Many groups I have worked with never had a dental health professional volunteer, and were delighted as their oral health needs are so great. Fifty percent of U.S. citizens do not have access to care, and you can make a huge difference in their lives.
While I enjoy volunteering and sharing my oral health expertise, performing nondental activities has allowed me to expand my knowledge and meet some interesting people. Meeting new people was a goal as I moved to another state after retirement, leaving my friends and colleagues in Michigan.
We are in a profession devoted to the caretaking of others, and many of you are already actively involved in volunteer activities outside of your clinical practice. At different points in our lives, various opportunities present themselves. For those with small children, working in your children's school or with sporting activities consumes hours of your free time. For those like me, recently retired from university teaching, the opportunities are endless.
The last four years I have been working with the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). This national program has affiliates throughout the United States and is available in most communities. It is an eclectic group of participants aged 55 or older. I work with volunteers who are in their 80s and enjoy their camaraderie while being inspired by their activism.
I have enjoyed multiple opportunities with RSVP in Florida and Michigan, stuffing envelopes for the ballet, United Way, and the RSVP newsletters (while eating bagels or pizza). I have served as an advisory member to the library continuing-education program and served as one of its speakers. I had the opportunity to develop a dental screening program for children of the working poor at a faith-based Compassion Center. This led to the opportunity to speak to the parents of this underserved population.
I met a woman at a local jazz fest, which resulted in an opportunity to work with the parents of children with spina bifida and presented an oral health program at their annual meeting. They were most grateful for the new toothbrushes and information.
While in Michigan visiting my father, I became involved in my hometown via RSVP. I was placed with the Restorative Justice and Dispute Resolution Program, developing a PowerPoint presentation to promote their program to community organizations and local schools. I worked with our new community Senior Center and presented a program on oral health and wellness. I served as a hostess for the annual Christmas Tour of Homes in the newly restored historic district. Through these volunteer situations, I learned so much about my hometown and became much more attached to the community. With the recent economy hitting Michigan so hard, it was a pleasure to contribute to the rebuilding of the community.
A sense of renewal
Through volunteering we can expand our knowledge, meet new people who share similar goals, and enhance our understanding of others. These activities often give us a sense of renewal, which makes us better clinicians in our offices. I knew nothing about our Restorative Justice and Mediation Center. However, putting together a marketing slide presentation gave me the opportunity to research this office's mission. I had used PowerPoint for several years for teaching; now I had to put together a slide program about a topic for which I knew nothing. That certainly expanded my knowledge!
Recently I have been working with the Hispanic Health Initiative (HHI) in Central Florida. I have developed an oral health assessment to collect data on the needs of the Hispanic population we serve in four counties. I also provide one-on-one oral health counseling and referral. Most have not known of the dental clinics in the area that can help the uninsured. They are so grateful for my help, and I leave with a euphoric feeling, knowing that I have helped lead these people to better health.
HHI is now in the planning stages for the development of a Wellness Center that includes oral health. I have given presentations at their Diabetes Education seminars as well and I had a booth at the recent Hispanic Health Fair. The clients are so grateful for the information and oral care products. This opportunity happened because I met the director (a retired attorney from New York) at a community event unrelated to oral health and the Hispanic Health Initiative. Keep your eyes and ears open, and the opportunities will present themselves. Extend yourself!
Last week I was asked to serve on a task force with the RSVP concerning childhood obesity. I met several professional people who all have a vested interest in the children in our community. I see a big role for oral hygienists in this area. We have been teaching nutrition and sugar education since the beginning of our profession. What a perfect fit!
Last fall I was blessed to be a part of the delegation to South Africa with the People to People Ambassador program representing the ADHA. That was an incredible trip and gave me a sense of urgency for oral health around the world. I hope to do more international travel to bring the oral health message to the underserved around the world. For those who cannot travel outside the country, rest assured there are plenty of opportunities in the United States and in your local community!
Many of my seminar participants have approached me following a lecture to inquire about getting started. I offer the following advice:
- Pick an area that you enjoy – oral health, children, seniors, gardening, speaking, animals, the environment, etc.
- Check out the numerous sources online for seeking volunteering opportunities, your local newspaper, and area newsletters.
- Create an opportunity where none has existed. Approach your local community resources – senior centers, hospitals, botanical gardens, zoos, schools, animal shelters, etc. Most would be happy to let you serve.
- Determine how much time you would like to devote – one hour a week or a month. The beauty of volunteering is that you can determine how much time you wish to invest.
- Your knowledge of dentistry makes you the "expert" in most community programs. Share with the many folks who do not have access to care. They will reward you with smiles, hugs, and gratitude!
- Take advantage of certain months to promote special events regarding oral health. Use suggestions from the ADHA Web site in October to promote National Dental Hygiene Month, or get ideas from the ADA Web site in February to promote National Children's Dental Health Month.
- Be bold. Choose to apply your many talents to a project that expands your knowledge in something you have always wanted to learn.
- Be flexible! Go with the flow. My clinic at the Compassion Center consists of two folding chairs, a bathroom sink, and sheets held with PVC pipe for walls.
- Begin building leadership skills. Professional organizations like the ADIA always need extra help. Step to the plate!
I am a better person for having volunteered, and I promise that exciting opportunities await you. I applaud your efforts and encourage you to continue devoting time to helping those in need!
Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA, is the president and CEO of Professional Development Association, Inc. She is an internationally recognized speaker and has authored numerous professional articles, a short story, and a children's book. Released in June 2010 she co-authored a book with Deepok Chopra, Jack Canfield, and Dennis Waitley titled, "Stepping Stones to Success," which discusses overcoming obstacles to becoming a successful professional speaker. She served as a dental hygiene professor with Ferris State University in Michigan until her "retirement" where she received numerous awards. She is a fellow with the Association of Dental Implant Auxiliaries where she has served as a speaker, author, and member of the editorial review board. Offering a variety of professional development courses including "Surviving and THRIVING in Your Profession," she can be reached at [email protected] or visit her Web site at www.lindapda.com.