Finding Meaning Volunteering Overseas

 03/01/2020 | 12:05 PM 

By Kimberly Troggio ~

It’s a bustling day in the small town of San Martin Jilotepeque, situated at 7,000ft in the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala. Sunday is market day – and also the first day of a six day volunteer dental clinic orchestrated by Global Dental Relief (GDR). 

Dr. Peter Vanicek, GDR trip leader stands on the porch of the main building in the central square, awaiting a new group of volunteers scheduled to arrive at the clinic. From a distance the volunteers can be seen, weaving their way through the myriad make-shift stalls erected to sell local wares. Surrounded by hundreds of indigenous Mayan hawking items, there is no more authentic welcome to Guatemala. 

There is a delicate dance that happens each time a GDR team of volunteers goes to work. After a detailed project briefing, volunteers find their station and set about the task of the day – to treat the 100 plus kids who arrive at the clinic each day to receive the first dental care of their lives.  Every volunteer has a vital role to play in the success of the clinic. Interestingly, the majority of clinic jobs are for folks who are not in the dental profession.  

GDR needs up to ten non-dental volunteers on each of the 30 clinics they host annually. Volunteers can assist a dentist, teach oral hygiene instruction, manage patient flow, maintain master records and generally keep the room from falling in to complete chaos as hundreds of children file through the 7 chair dental clinic.   

This group of dentists, hygienists and non-dental helpers, all strangers a few short days ago, become a focused team, sharing a common purpose. They work tirelessly to provide as much loving care for as many children as possible. The children are so proud, after successfully enduring their first ever experience in the dental chair. “I volunteer often, but I seldom feel that I’m making a lasting impact. I feel really good about the work GDR does – they are improving the lives of these children,” says Zach Anderson, who volunteered in the Guatemala project last year.

GDR volunteers have been working since 2001 to bring dental care to children around the world. Over the last 19 years 3,000 volunteers have treated 192,245 children in India, Nepal, Cambodia, Kenya and Guatemala.  In 2019, 371 volunteers served 21,914 children with $4.6 million in donated dental care. This year GDR expands its work to the Yucatan Peninsula, to bring dental care to indigenous Mayan communities. 

Volunteer teams consist of up to six dentists, two hygienists and ten assistants and non-dental volunteers.  Dr. Nick Lombardozzi first traveled with GDR to Guatemala in 2012. He just completed his third trip with the organization and is primed to join again next year. “It’s a certain type of person who volunteers to bring their skills to far-flung corners of the globe,” reflects Lombardozzi. He says that he is constantly struck not just by the quality of his fellow volunteers, but by how “warm, welcoming and good-natured” local people are everywhere that he has traveled with Global Dental Relief.

General volunteer Matt Brooks reflects: “It is such an amazing experience working with the children and getting to know the GDR team. Everything is so well orchestrated. It is an incredible way to see a different part of the world and do something useful during that time.” When not working in the clinic, volunteers are exposed to the history and cultural of the region through unique sightseeing opportunities. If they are feeling adventurous they can also hike a volcano, go white water rafting or even trek along the Everest trail.  

The success of GDR’s work rests squarely on the compassion and commitment of volunteers who work in these clinics. In addition to the immense need of the kids, what motivates GDR trip leaders like Dr. Vanicek is the community of volunteers. He is struck by how different the volunteers are, yet they share the common goal of helping children live healthier lives. “There are so many lifelong friendships made in GDR clinics, friendships that cross borders, race, religion, and political parties. It’s magic really, this common bond to help make the world a better place.” 

As the last day of the clinic comes to a close – volunteers say goodbye to their stations and the kids. Together two teams of GDR volunteers provided $387,770 in dental care (US equivalent) to 1,691 children in the Mayan Highlands. These kids received 1272 restorations, and 505 cleanings. Each child also received a new toothbrush, oral hygiene instruction and a fluoride varnish treatment.

It’s time to pack up our clinic, say farewell to local partners and find some time to reflect on this life changing experience. Peter remarks with a glint in his eye – “It sounds altruistic, but honestly you get so much more out of it than what you give. A lot of people lose their sense of community when they retire – the contact with their colleagues and friends. This work is a way of establishing a new community.” 

Global Dental Relief’s mission is to bring free dental care to children throughout the world. Volunteer dentists, hygienists, assistants and non-dental volunteers deliver treatment and preventive care in dental clinics that serve children in schools, orphanages and remote villages. 

With a vision to transform lives and cultivate community through volunteerism, GDR provides opportunities for diverse groups of volunteers to explore the world and bring free dental care and oral health education to thousands of impoverished children in Nepal, India, Cambodia, Kenya, Mexico and Guatemala.  

For more information on volunteer opportunities visit the Global Dental Relief website at:, email: or call (303) 858 – 8857. Join us and see the world as you’ve never seen it before! You don’t have to be a dentist to volunteer!

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