How my childhood influenced my need to pay it forward

ASDA believes giving back to our communities is a key part of the dental student experience and as future dental practitioners. Throughout November, we’re going to explore how dental students are making a significant impact in their local communities. Mark your calendars for ASDA’s upcoming Week of Service, “Renewing our Reach,” Jan. 17-23, 2022, so you can make a difference in your community, too.

I grew up on an acre of land with fruit trees, a massive vegetable garden and just a few animals to care for. While it may sound like I grew up with a luxury many lack, the reality is that my family of 14 was hardly scraping by. We used public help services from time to time, although my parent’s philosophy was to “only take what you need.” I appreciated the value of those services: from having a free hot lunch at school every day to being able to pick out some of my own new clothes from a clothing pantry. My background is what initially motivated me to engage in community service — the feelings of immense gratitude, of knowing I would not be where I am had I not benefited from the services others offered. I wanted to pay it forward.

I have been volunteering since I was 13. Back then, I was engaging in simpler activities such as canned food drives, Christmas tree recycling and camping out to mentor fourth graders about environmental issues and wilderness safety. My volunteerism slowly progressed to helping elementary school-aged kids with their math and reading, joining an oral health coalition to advocate for decreasing oral health disparities, and volunteering with a free medical and dental clinic. Today, my service brings me to advocating for community projects among my dental class at University of Missouri, Kansas City School of Dentistry, and directing services and dental care at JayDoc Free Dental Clinic in Kansas City, Kansas.

The JayDoc Free Clinic started as a free medical clinical run by Kansas University Medical Center in 2003. They later incorporated a specialty dental night into the services they offer. Since incorporating the free dental night, they collaborated with individuals from UMKC School of Dentistry to take on the responsibility of running the dental clinic.

This clinic would not be possible without the generous support of the student-run JayDoc Dental Board, dental student volunteers, faculty and administrators. Every other Tuesday night, our third- and fourth-year student volunteers gather to provide exceptional care to patients in need. A fourth-year student operates while the third-year student assists and soaks up all the knowledge — and splatter — the fourth years provide. We provide care to about 10 individuals each night, and while that may seem meager, it is 10 fewer individuals who do not have to make the heartbreaking decision of whether they will eat this week or get their tooth fixed.

Each member on the board has a specific function both in and outside of clinic. For example, as the previous director of community outreach, I would deliver resources and information to target communities outside of dental nights, while during clinic nights, I would run sterilization and room turnover. Currently, as executive director, I communicate with lawyers, the health clinic’s coordinator and our UMKC clinic advisor over legality and logistics. I also show up to each dental night to organize volunteers, acts as a runner to ensure the clinic runs smoothly and be the first face patients see before sitting in the chair with their student doctor. 

Running the dental clinic has been one of the most rewarding service opportunities I have been involved in, mostly because it is immediate, direct action. It is sort of like personally giving a hungry person a meal; you might have the opportunity to participate in a canned food drive or donate money to food banks, but there is nothing like experiencing and providing direct-action community service. People come to us in pain, most of the time as a last resort. We are able to get those people out of pain.

Initially, volunteering was purely about giving back. It was not until I took on the role as executive director at JayDoc that I realized I could use my knowledge and expertise in dentistry to provide the most impact to my direct community. I encourage you to get out, volunteer and appreciate the impact just a few hours of your time can make! Now, I am keen to target specific communities that need help so we can deliver resources to those communities. As a recently awarded scholar for the National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program, I am jazzed about the opportunity to work in underserved communities following dental school.

Join Esther in participating in ASDA’s Week of Service, “Renewing our Reach,” Jan. 17-23, 2022 to continue serving those in need and building our communities.

~Esther Stetson, Missouri-Kansas City ’23

Esther Stetson

Esther Stetson is a third-year dental student at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. Outside of dentistry, she enjoys spending time outdoors, doing things such as mountain biking and snowboarding. She takes great pride in creating tie-dyes for her small business, Rainbow Haze Tiedyes.

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