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Dental program weds 30 years of service, destiny for its volunteers

February 06, 2012

By Stacie Crozier, ADA News Staff

Project leaders: Dr. Steve Pohlhaus, DDMP director, left, and Dr. Francis Serio, DDMP founder, pause for a photo before treating patients in the Dominican Republic.

Linthicum, Md.—A venerable international dental program now in its 30th year has brought pain relief and a better quality of life to more than 56,000 people in the mountains of the Dominican Republic, but the impact of the Dominican Dental Mission Project has also been personally life changing for many of its volunteers.

Dr. Francis G. Serio, founder and past director for the project, admits that his first volunteer trip to the Dominican Republic in 1982 was a learning experience and a personal journey.

“The first year I went by myself,” Dr. Serio said. “I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t know anything about the country or about development. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

But after his first summer trip, he said he was hooked.

“I had no grand designs at the beginning,” said Dr. Serio. “After my first trip, I held a little lunch and learn session at Maryland where I was an assistant professor (the University of Maryland Baltimore College of Dental Surgery) and some dental students volunteered to go the next summer. That’s how it got started. Five of us went the second year.”

Almost three decades later, one of the original five volunteers, Dr. Douglas D. Wright, a general dentist in Harrisonburg, Va., volunteered for the 2011 mission and brought his 17-year-old son as well.

To mark its 10th anniversary, the program was honored at the White House with the President’s Volunteer Action Award from President George H. W. Bush and was again honored on its 20th anniversary with a Daily Points of Light Award from President George W. Bush.

Some 500 dentists, dental students and lay volunteers have worked with the project and at least $9 million in care has been provided at the DDMP’s three clinic sites, San Jose de Ocoa, Hondo Valle and El Cercado.

“Hondo Valle is literally at the end of the road, two miles from the Haitian border,” said Dr. Serio. “The village and its church organize it with us, and we set up our portable equipment for the clinic in the parish hall. We plugged the program into the context of their other ministries so it works in context with the community.

“One year we got a letter from the missionaries that said they know that because the dentists come to Hondo Valle every year the villagers know that God has not forgotten them,” he said. “You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read that. Hope is the greatest gift you can give to someone who is despairing. And we are honored and humbled that we can do that.”

Three decades of service: The Dominican Dental Mission Project’s annual trips are a family affair for Drs. Cheryl and Francis Serio.
Dr. Serio, now interim vice dean, professor and associate dean for clinical affairs at East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine, served as the Dominican Dental Mission Project director for 20 years before passing the leadership role to his colleague and DDMP volunteer Dr. Steve Pohlhaus in 2001. Dr. Pohlhaus, a general dentist in Linthicum, Md., and University of Maryland professor met his destiny while volunteering in the Dominican Republic.

“I went on the trip as a dental student in 1988 and made my first return visit in 1992,” said Dr. Pohlhaus. “It was the next year when I met my wife, Dr. Jenny De La Cruz Pohlhaus, when she joined the group as a dental student from the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo. We became friends and saw each other each summer on the project and a few years later as they say, one thing led to another and we were married in 1998.

“The trip has meant so much to both of us,” Dr. Pohlhaus added. “We have many friends in the Dominican Republic who treat us like family every year and the trip would be impossible without their help. We feel fortunate to have the opportunity to apply our skills to help our friends every year.”

Dr. Serio’s brother Stephen Serio, a Chicago-based photographer, also met his wife on a DDMP trip.

“My brother went on a trip with us to photograph the mission and to be my right-hand guy with the equipment,” Dr. Serio said. “One of my former students, now Dr. Michelle Serio, was also on the trip. She and my brother had met briefly before the trip, but working together on the mission really brought them together.” Stephen and Dr. Michelle Serio now live in suburban Chicago.

All in the family: Dr. Cheryl Serio places a restoration during a clinic in Hondo Valle.

A third union is also credited to the project, Dr. Serio added. Colleague and volunteer Dr. Raymond Zambito of Locust Valley, N.Y., brought his daughter Christine on a trip because she spoke Spanish, and she ended up meeting the Dominican man she later married.

“Besides these marriages,” said Dr. Serio, “It’s important to note that my wife, Dr. Cheryl Serio (now director of advanced education in general dentistry at East Carolina University) and I went on a mission trip right before our wedding. She saw how important the project was to me. She didn’t go for several years after that, because she was the support system at home for our young children, but now that they are grown, we are able to go together. My mother and several of my siblings, as well as my children have gone on trips. It means so much to our family to be a part of this.”

“The personal impact of the Dominican Dental Mission Project is impossible to measure in my life as well as in the lives of many volunteers,” said Dr. Pohlhaus. “Life is full of twists and turns that one can never predict. We simply can look at our two daughters and understand that without both our decisions to be a part of the project, they would not be there smiling back at us.”

For more information on the project, visit Dr. Pohlhaus’ website: www.laserdentistbaltimore.com/dominican-republic-dental-project.

Visit the ADA’s International Volunteer Web page, http://internationalvolunteer.ada.org, to search for volunteer opportunities by organization, country/region, program type and more, or contact the ADA Division of Global Affairs at 1-312-440-2726 for more information.