If you were to walk into the Refugee Dental Clinic in Phoenix on a Saturday morning, you’d see a place where patients receive services ranging from exams, X-rays and dental cleanings to fluoride treatments, fillings and extractions.
But Krista Duggan sees something more. She sees volunteers in action — and humanity at its best. She sees a place where students practice far more than professional dental assisting skills. She sees an opportunity for students to discover the power of compassion and service.
Why she helped launch a dental clinic for refugees
As program director of the Carrington College Dental Assisting Program in Mesa, Duggan helped launch the twice-monthly, low-cost clinic a year ago in response to a growing need she and dental colleagues noticed in the community.
The clinic, tucked away in a quiet office complex and staffed solely by a rotating team of volunteer dentists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants, operates on alternating Saturdays. It serves patients from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Africa, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Venezuela and numerous other countries. Duggan says the clinic provides vital services to a refugee population unlikely to access services elsewhere.
“Some of our patients once led very comfortable lives before they were forced to flee their countries,” she says. “Others have struggled and lived under oppression for decades. No matter where they come from, what they have in common is an urgent need for dental care. Because of everything they’ve endured to get here, they’re often fearful of the system and of strangers. Our clinic provides a safe haven where they’re treated with dignity and respect.”
How volunteering to provide dental services to refugees benefits students
Duggan, who worked as a dental assistant for 15 years before joining the Carrington College faculty two years ago, says students enrolled in Carrington’s Dental Assisting program benefit from volunteering at the dental clinics as much as the patients they serve.
“It’s one thing to be told in a classroom how something works, but it’s another to see it firsthand,” says Duggan. “Volunteering in a busy clinic helps prepare students for the real world. They sterilize equipment. They get to observe experienced dental assistants in action, and sometimes have an opportunity to assist dentists in a variety of procedures.”
That process, Duggan says, can be transformative.
“I’ve seen students who I initially perceived as aloof and self-centered evolve into kinder, more compassionate people as a result of providing care to those who wouldn’t likely get it anywhere else,” she says. “There’s something humbling about being of service to others in such a significant, personal way.”
Duggan says the clinic provides students with more than a volunteer experience. It also provides them a valuable perspective.
“Many of our students know firsthand that life can be challenging,” Duggan explains. “The majority of them are the first people in the families to enroll in a college program. Some of them are helping raise siblings or children of their own, and most are working while going to school. But seeing what other people have had to overcome can be both humbling and inspiring.”
Duggan, a self-proclaimed “volunteer addict,” says she never second-guesses her decision to commit two Saturdays month to working at the clinic. In fact, she says, she looks forward to it.
“When a woman smiles without covering her mouth for the first time since she was a little girl, you know that you’re helping change someone’s life in a powerful way,” Duggan says. “When you remove a patient’s tooth and he tells you it’s the first time in 10 years he hasn’t experienced pain, you know you’re making a difference.”
Duggan says the clinic ultimately provides something that transcends dental care.
“We provide a safe space where people feel welcome, no matter where they come from” she says. “Unfortunately, feeling welcome isn’t something they always experience. We’ve had patients who were hesitant to make eye contact when they entered the clinic reach out to give us hugs as they were leaving.”
As Duggan sees it, the clinic is one of those unique settings where everyone leaves better off than when they arrived.
“I love the opportunity we create for people in need to get help — and for our students to learn to provide that help,” says Duggan. “It’s a reminder of that old adage: While none of us can do everything, we can all do something.”
Are you interested in training to become a dental assistant? Check out information on Carrington College’s Dental Assisting program: