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Dr. Francis G. Serio named 2015 ADA Humanitarian

January 05, 2015

By Stacie Crozier

Highest honor for service: Dr. Serio and his wife Dr. Cheryl Serio pause for a photo during a dental mission trip to the Dominican Republic. Dr. Serio is the ADA's 2015 Humanitarian Award recipient.
Greenville, N.C
. — In 1982, Dr. Francis G. "Frank" Serio took a leap of faith, making a one-man mission trip to provide dental care in a remote region of the Dominican Republic. Today, that first small step has grown into a dental charity that has provided care to thousands of residents in poor rural areas of that country and beyond. The Dominican Dental Mission Project is just one example of how Dr. Serio has touched and improved the lives of countless people through volunteerism and education.

In recognition of his more than three decades of service, Dr. Serio has been named the 2015 ADA Humanitarian Award recipient. He will be honored during ADA 2015 — America's Dental Meeting, Nov. 5-8 in Washington, D.C.

"When I took that first trip in 1982 by myself, I didn't know what I was doing," said Dr. Serio, the founder and co-director of the DDMP. "I didn't speak Spanish. I didn't know anything about the country or about development. I went totally on faith and by the grace of God. The Catholic Medical Mission Board (a nonprofit international health organization) assigned me to work at a specific site in San Jose de Ocoa because the nuns there were bilingual and the compound would be able to facilitate groups of volunteers in the future."

After the first trip, Dr. Serio hosted a lunch and learn talk at the University of Maryland dental school, where he was a faculty member, and a few dental students volunteered to go with him the next summer.

"That's literally how the project started," Dr. Serio said. "In 1983, five of us went. In 1984, it was four. In 1985, it was 14 and it kept growing."

Over all of the past 33 summers, the project has provided more than $15 million worth of needed dental care and dental and medical supplies to some 60,000 rural poor in the Dominican Republic and the local hospital.

The DDMP has not only changed the lives of the thousands who received dental care but its volunteers also experienced some life-changing events because of their work with the project. Eight Dominican volunteers went on to become dentists. Three couples connected and got married, including the project's current co-director Dr. Steve Pohlhaus and his wife Dr. Jenny De La Cruz Pohlhaus; Dr. Serio's brother Stephen and his wife Dr. Michelle Serio; and Christine Zambito, a translator and the daughter of a dentist volunteer, and her husband Luis Morillo.

Goodwill ambassador: Dr. Serio gives new baseballs to youngsters during a Dominican Dental Mission Project trip. His focus during mission trips includes spending time outside the clinic, talking with villagers and playing with children.
Dr. Serio's daughter Grace — now a second-year medical student — affirmed her aspirations to become a physician by volunteering at the local Dominican hospital during several mission trips.

Some volunteers have published research articles using data gathered from mission trips and other volunteers have branched out to launch or work with other international volunteer groups and programs.

"We are a full-service project that can help you with whatever you need," Dr. Serio said jokingly.

"But, in essence, this project is a platform for people to find their passion," Dr. Serio said.

"Several Dominican Dental Mission Project alums have spun off to launch projects of their own. It has been a springboard. We have no idea how many people we've touched because of the multiplier effect. And that is very rewarding."

His wife Dr. Cheryl Serio, director of advanced education in general dentistry at East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine, accompanied him on a mission trip six weeks before their wedding, and realized early on that this project was her life partner's passion.

"My wife is as integral a part of this project as I am," Dr. Serio said. "She's been on the trips six times, but without her taking care of the home front, there is no way I can do what I do."

Dr. Serio's work with DDMP has even garnered presidential attention. He received a President's Volunteer Action Award from President George H. W. Bush in 1991 and a Daily Points of Light Award from President George W. Bush in 2001.

It's hard to imagine that as a college student, Dr. Serio was not inclined to follow in his father's footsteps and become a dentist. He was planning to attend medical school.

"I have had a great life as a dentist," Dr. Serio said. "My dad, the late Dr. Joseph Serio, was a general dentist in New York. I started college saying I'd never be a dentist. I wanted to be a physician. It took me a couple years to figure out that what I wanted to do was sitting in front of me my whole life. My dad taught me how to love dentistry as a profession, and I've never had a moment's regret."

In addition to his passion for volunteering globally, Dr. Serio has touched thousands of lives as an educator at several U.S. dental schools, including the University of Maryland, the University of Mississippi and East Carolina University.

He was named professor and founding dean of the dental school planned at Bluefield College in Virginia, although the program was suspended earlier this year due to funding issues. He has served as a faculty advisor and mentor to students, faculty and practitioners.

"I love to watch the lights go on when I'm working with students, in the classroom, in the clinic or on a mission trip," he said. "We spend a lot of talking with them, asking and answering questions until we allow them the independence to use the skills they've honed. By our professional example we model the next generation of dentists. It's important to show dental students that their potential is practically limitless."

Dr. Serio also lectures on the continuing education circuit on periodontics and global volunteerism. He has authored some 90 articles, abstracts, textbook chapters, books and other publications. He was a founding member and former chair for the ADA's Dentistry Overseas Steering Committee, and serves on the International College of Dentists Humanitarian Liaison Subcommittee.

He also presents programs on volunteer activities for dental professionals and their families at major dental meetings nationwide for the ICD and was a coordinator and speaker at the ADA's first several volunteer symposia, now held biannually at the annual meeting.

He is also a contributing author of the ADA's International Dental Volunteer Guide, now available as an e-book at internationalvolunteer.ada.org.

Dental day: Kids and families wait outside a school where a Dominican Dental Mission Project has set up a dental clinic.
In addition to providing care at Mission of Mercy and Remote Area Medical clinics and other local dental charities, he has reached out to help neighbors in the communities he's lived in by working with Habitat for Humanity and coaching baseball and soccer.

Currently, he works at a local community health center, providing care for the underserved.

"I reconnected with a colleague I met in dental school after 35 years, and I'm working with him," Dr. Serio said. "I'm doing community dentistry and spend 75 percent of my time speaking Spanish. Our center has lots of immigrant Mexican patients. Between my passable Spanish and their English we get along just fine. I feel like I've gone back to my roots."

ADA President Maxine Feinberg called Dr. Serio during the December 2014 meeting of the ADA Board of Trustees to let him know he was receiving the ADA's highest honor.

"There are very few times in one's career that someone can speak with an individual as outstanding and humble as Dr. Serio," Dr. Feinberg said. "He has done so much to improve the quality of the lives of those who are less fortunate and in doing so he taught us all important lessons on the true meaning of professionalism and the humility."

Dr. Serio will be recognized at the Opening General Session of ADA 2015, the Association's annual meeting, and receive $10,000 to be donated to the continuing work of the Dominican Dental Mission Project.

Dr. Serio considers his touchstone a letter he received from missionaries in the Dominican Republic's remote Hondo Valle after one of his mission trips. The letter in part said that because the dentists from the Dominican Dental Mission Project return every year to help them, "these people know that God has not forgotten them."

"Giving people hope is perhaps the greatest power we have as human beings," Dr. Serio said. "We put that message on the T-shirts our volunteers wear in the field to remind us of our mission. We aren't offering dental care. We are offering hope. That's the most important thing we can do."

The ADA Humanitarian Award was launched in 2007 and is the Association's highest humanitarian honor. This prestigious award recognizes dentist members who have distinguished themselves by outstanding, unselfish leadership and at least a 10-year commitment to their fellow human beings in the field of dentistry, through the dedication of extraordinary time and professional skills to improve the oral health of underserved populations in the United States and abroad.

This year, the ADA Board of Trustees voted to increase the donation to the winner's charity of choice from $5,000 to $10,000.

The ADA is now accepting nominations for the 2016 ADA Humanitarian Award. To download the nomination packet, visit ADA.org and search in the Member Center section for "ADA Humanitarian Award" or email
international@ada.org for more information.