Impressions of a first-time dental volunteer: Part II

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How a Global Dental clinic comes together: the incredible intangibles

Even though I’d been working at the Denver headquarters for several months before traveling to Cambodia to live the volunteer experience and thought I already knew everything there was to know about our clinics, there were a number of things that really surprised and impressed me. Beginning with…

The volunteers

Our volunteers are wonderful! Though they come from a very wide and diverse range of backgrounds and everyone has a totally unique story, the group I was a part of really clicked and had great chemistry. Amazingly, when I talked to some of the “serial” volunteers in the group who had been on a number of trips previously, no one could remember a single Global Dental project where this hadn’t been the case. GDR just seems to attract good-hearted, adventurous people with a passion for travel and cultural exchange and a strong desire to give back. Everyone worked really hard to put their best foot forward and give top-notch care to a truly impressive number of kids. I truly enjoyed spending time with such an exceptional group of people.

Our local partners

We have great on-the-ground partnerships in Cambodia (and, I’m told, everywhere else we work too). We work with two Cambodian non-profits, East Meets West and HUSK, that put in a ton of legwork to make sure kids get treatment who need it. As foreigners, we bank on our local partners’ reputations to inspire trust in the communities in which we work. Without that trust, we simply would not be able to operate in those communities. What a huge gift! In addition, the Shinta Mani, the hotel in Siem Reap where our volunteers stay, has a philanthropic arm that provides us with lots of logistical support and resources, including bilingual personnel. Between our three partners, we had several caring and compassionate Cambodians working with us every day, and our team quickly learned to rely on them as cultural ambassadors and surprisingly (given the short time we knew them) good friends.

The need

It’s true: our work is really needed. Of course I knew this intellectually before volunteering—but man, our work is really needed. We mainly worked on kids ages 6 to 16 who had never been to see a dentist or hygienist before. I was really shocked by the level of decay these kids suffer with, painfully visible even to my untrained eye: teeth rotted down to the gum; abscesses; cavities so big it seems the whole tooth has to be hollowed out before they can be filled back in. I really can’t imagine the pain so many of these young kids have to deal with on a daily basis.

The trust

The support of the children’s families and the fortitude of the children themselves are phenomenal. The community recognizes the need for dental care—perhaps due to the pain so many suffer as a result of tooth decay. What’s more surprising (and deeply humbling) is that the community trusts us to provide quality healthcare to their children. Even the kids themselves seem to trust us and recognize the importance of what we do, eagerly lining up for their turn in the dental chair. And despite the initial nervousness we’ve all experienced at the sight of a big needle loaded with anesthetic pointed straight at our faces, the children we treat bear up incredibly well given the amount and complexity of the work many of them need. The highly professional pain management provided by our dentists is partly to thank, but I believe too that the kids recognize what a gift professional dental care is, even if the procedures can be intimidating or uncomfortable. Even kids who have had a difficult extraction on one day will gladly come back of their own accord on the following day for additional care. Incredible!

The community

So much about my experience as a volunteer with Global Dental Relief in Cambodia was fun, extraordinary and memorable. Cambodia is a beautiful country, and the Angkor Wat is really as spectacular as people say. The Shinta Mani hotel is a delightfully relaxing spot to retreat to at the end of a long day, soak your toes in the pool and sip a cool beverage under the shade of a palm tree. There were lots of things to do and good food to eat in Siem Reap. But what really stood out for me—what really made the experience something I will always cherish—were the people. The people who made the journey with me, the friends I made there, the kids whose hands I held and the Cambodians generous enough to share with me both their customs and their touching personal stories. But also the people I never met, the people behind the scenes without whom none of it would have been possible: the parents, the teachers, and of course the incredible community of dedicated supporters, sponsors and donors who make sure we get the resources we need to be able to make a difference. I’m honored, and humbled, to be a part of this big, diverse, multinational and impactful community.