September 2019
Volume 40, Issue 8

The Sheer Joy of Volunteerism

Jack Levine, DDS; and Peter Auster, DMD

Living a full life requires a level of satisfaction within our personal as well as our professional lives. Even dentists, as satisfying as our careers may be, can feel an absence of completeness. From the beginning humans are programmed to be concerned about one another and to want to care about our fellow beings. Giving back provides a level of fulfillment that is absent in our day-to-day existence.

Dental volunteerism can be a life changer, not only for the patients being served, but also for the one serving. Giving of our time and service, without thoughts of financial gain, is universally enriching. Sharing our talent in surgical and restorative dentistry and teaming up with others to pool our collective skills is stimulating. Asking nothing in return is inspiring.

Social scientists who have studied altruism and the rewards for the giver have concluded that giving to others is linked to health longevity.1 It buffers against stress and helps people deal with adverse events in their lives. Altruism helps people feel grateful for what they have.2

The Gift of Service

The first stage of altruism extends beyond the service itself and reaches into the giver's heart. It encompasses the gradual loss of self, resulting from the gift of service. When volunteers work in remote locations, whether domestically or internationally, at the end of a clinical day there is a sense of exhaustion and exhilaration together, a profound sense of well-being and fulfillment.

The authors have had the privilege of volunteering in communities throughout Jamaica with a humanitarian group called Great Shape International (greatshapeinc.org). Its dental volunteer team is named "1000 Smiles." The following are sample encounters of the many people the group has assisted over the past 15 years:

Mary, a 60-year-old woman, had teeth that had caused her pain off and on for 30 years. We were able to relieve her of her pain, and she was so happy that she returned to bring us a wheelbarrow filled with coconuts after walking uphill for miles!

Joyce and Gloriawere teachers in a public school in Westmoreland, Jamaica. A day after our volunteers completed a dental education and sealant program for their students, the two womencame back with their families for their first dental cleanings ever and promised to forever teach future students what they learned from us.

Geoffrey, a 58-year-old man,had no teeth, and had been without teeth for 25 years. The smile that emanated from his lips after receiving dentures for the first time was a scene none of us will ever forget.

Rhondawas a 43-year-old masseuse with broken, decayed teeth who could not find work in local hotels because of her damaged smile. She was so overjoyed with the cosmetic dentistry we provided her that she demanded to give all of the volunteers a massage the next day-and she would not take "no" for an answer! Her massages, by the way, felt wonderful after hours of bending over patients.

Leesa and Paulettewere "church ladies" in Green Town, Jamaica.Our group set up a clinic in their church, replacing pews with dental chairs. Each morning we held hands with them and the patients and sang songs together to start our day. On the last day of the week, they brought a multitude of gifts for our spouses and us.

One of our clinician friends had a life-altering experience. As he repaired an 18-year-old woman's broken incisor she began weeping uncontrollably. She later explained that a rapist had punched her and broken her tooth when she was 11. Finally, after 7 years, that reminder would not be apparent in the mirror.

These stories are endless. The feelings they register are impossible to explain. To volunteers, fulfillment and sheer joy can come in multiple ways. A simple smile and hug from a person in a world they've never been a part of cannot be underestimated. These are simple tokens of extreme gratitude, from people who have very little, but have much to give in many other ways.

The Value of Community

The second stage of altruism involves community. 1000 Smiles serves groups that include people of all ages, those who are employed and unemployed, ranging from teachers, students, pastors, nurses, farmers, fishermen, hotel workers, and local politicians, to family leaders and more. All have one thing in common: they are in need of dental treatment. The organization helps create bonds between people who otherwise would never have met. Communication is opened between different cultures.

While volunteering, at the end of each day, we return to our temporary homes or shelters to be with each other. We compare notes and "decompress." Patient care exhilarates us, but our close-knit community of dental personnel grounds us. Tired and exhausted, we still have room for one another. It is no wonder that dental mission veterans "light up" when they speak about their experiences.

As clinicians know, the pressures of day-to-day dentistry can be intense. We deal with insurance companies, staffing issues, difficult patient cases, and the various challenges of the day. Volunteer dentistry has its own share of trials, but the overall daily experience is very different from a typical day at the office. Congregating each year with volunteers who share like-minded goals with similar excitement creates a sense of kinship that permeates and invigorates the entire group. Setting up remote clinics and greeting and treating the patients leads to moments of joy that resembles nothing experienced in a typical office. Working side by side with other volunteers (many support staff have no dental experience, but simply want to give), with the goal of successfully treating as many patients as possible in a given timeframe, fosters a true sense of "team."

The Opportunity to Help

There are many examples of dental volunteerism on local or international levels. The American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry Give Back a Smile program for domestic violence victims can help people in your hometown. The Special Olympics' Special Smiles offers dental screenings of the athletes. State-run "dental days" and pro bono treatment days for disabled or needy veterans are great ways to "pay it forward." The Dental Lifeline Network's Donated Dental Services team does excellent work screening patients who desperately need care. Dentists like Drs. Sherwin Shin, Francis Serio, and Laurie Houston travel to patients in need from Kenya to Guam, to Cambodia to Haiti.

For many dentists, volunteerism helps fill a void they may not have known even existed. It allows them to become part of a team that is there only for good. They receive an opportunity to treat people who need help badly and are extremely appreciative of any care provided. Volunteers retire at night knowing that they helped other human beings with no reciprocation. It's a marvelous way to end your day, add to your life, and feed your soul.


1. Post SG. Altruism, happiness, and health: it's good to be good. Int J Behavioral Medicine. 2005;12(2):66-77.

2. Karns C. New thoughts about gratitude, charity and our brains. The Washington Post. December 23, 2018; Health & Science: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/new-thoughts-about-gratitude-charity-and-our-brains/2018/12/21/238986e6-f808-11e8-8d64-4e79db33382f_story.html?utm_term=.d071d508d7d9. Accessed July 1, 2019.

About the Authors

Jack Levine, DDS
Private Practice, New Haven, Connecticut; Dr. Levine has served as a volunteer for dental needs in developing countries, including Nepal, Jamaica, Tanzania, and Uganda, and is on the board of directors of Himalayan Health Care and a consultant for Remote Medical International.

Peter Auster, DMD
Private Practice, Pomona, New York; Dr. Auster has provided volunteer dentistry in Jamaica for 11 years and voluntarily serves Give Back a Smile and Smiles for Life. He has received a Certificate for International Voluntary Service from the American Dental Association.

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