This summer, even more dental students than usual sought to serve others through a life-changing service opportunity in the Dominican Republic that Creighton has been sponsoring for more than 40 years.
And for Joe Tanaka, a senior in the School of Dentistry, the trip did not disappoint.
“I had heard a lot of good things about the trip from other dental students, and my dad and sister went in 2014,” Tanaka says.
“It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.”
Usually 10 dental students make the trip, but this year Tanaka and 14 other dental students went to the D.R. for five weeks through Creighton’s Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC) program. During that time, dental professionals, most of whom are Creighton alumni, also volunteered their services for one or two weeks at a time.
The students and the volunteer professionals perform much-needed dental treatments for patients at dental clinics in rural villages, or campos. This year, the group served five campos. The students also live with families in the campos for part of the time.
“ILAC is primarily a cultural immersion experience. It touches people,” says Terry Wilwerding, DDS’77, MS’00, MS’08, professor in the Department of Prosthodontics and co-director of the dental ILAC program. “Staying with the families is an important part of the experience.”
Wilwerding has gone on the ILAC dental trip 15 or 16 times, beginning in 1986. “I enjoy going down there,” he says. “We don’t save the world, but we help some people.
“We used to just remove teeth, but now we do all kinds of treatments.” His challenge is getting all the dental supplies and equipment needed for the trip.
“I thought I was prepared because I had heard so much about it,” Tanaka says. “Everyone said it is hot and conditions are rough. But getting to know the families and the children we treat, and the cooperadoras (local coordinators who are well-known and respected by the local community), made it so worth it.”
Calling the Dominicans selfless, he gave an example to demonstrate that, while “they didn’t have much, they offered us everything they had.
“It was so hot when we were there, so they filled a swimming pool for us to cool off. They saved up their precious water for us, so they could fill the pool.”
“Our student body realizes the value of this trip from both a humanitarian perspective and a dental experience perspective,” says Scott Radniecki, BS’08, DDS’12, assistant professor of general dentistry, one of the faculty members who went to the D.R. “We’ve had more applicants because previous participants have talked up the program and more people are interested as a result.”
The trip provides a “jump in the deep end” aspect to dental school, Radniecki says, “that we cannot easily provide to students in the dental school clinic. While students are very well-trained prior to the trip, there is a decision-making aspect to the D.R. trip that really helps their experience and confidence.”
There are usually several pairings of students and parents or siblings on the trip, the latter serving as professional volunteers, and this year saw an increase in that respect as well.
Tanaka, for example, had his mother, Cynthia Leong, DDS’85, and his sister Jennifer Tanaka, BA’11, DDS’15, each there for part of this year’s trip.
Leong, who with her husband, Raymund Tanaka, BS’79, DDS’83, operates Tanaka Family Dentistry in the Phoenix area, made the trip for the first time, although her husband and daughter have volunteered previously.
“All the alumni told me that I would love going to ILAC. They were right,” she says.
“My husband and daughter came back with tales of how wonderful ILAC was. I signed up hesitantly because I am not an adventure bunny like my Eagle Scout husband,” she says with a laugh.
“However, I too came back with stories of how transformational my two weeks in the Dominican Republic were. My host family was gracious to provide me with special treats and fun experiences.”
As a mother, Leong felt the best part of the experience “was seeing my kids in dental action. I appreciated their willingness to give up their time to help others, and they merged effortlessly into a different culture. The mobile dentistry unit meant working without normal suctions, compressors that were touchy, and no air conditioning.
“I was proud of my kids, but cannot take sole credit for them. I know it’s the environment of Creighton – the quality of instruction they receive and the community of classmates they meet – that has shaped their values.”