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Fishing trip snowballs into Belize Mission Project

March 10, 2016

By David Burger

Volunteerism: Dr. David Vo and his dental assistant Sandra Diaz render dental treatment in San Pedro, Belize.
San Pedro, Belize — The Belize Mission Project began with a fishing trip.

More than 25 years ago, Dr. Frank Whipps, his wife Bonnie and a friend traveled to the central American country to do some fishing and shoot some video for a fishing show. While there, they met another American dentist who had moved to Belize to start a resort. The other dentist also volunteered time to treat residents with dental pain. He asked Dr. Whipps if he could put together a volunteer group to come down to help people who had no source of dental treatment.

"Since my wife and I had been doing mission projects 10 years prior to this meeting and since the other gentleman who was with me was in the travel business, we decided we would give it a try," Dr. Whipps said.

That inauspicious beginning has blossomed into a two-week humanitarian mission each fall that includes about 100 volunteers who provide medical and dental treatment to thousands of impoverished Belizeans in the area around the village of San Pedro.

In addition, volunteers with the Belize Mission Project have established a countrywide fluoride varnish program where they apply varnishes to 8,000-9,000 children each year.

Underserved: Dr. Phillip Bangle and his dental assistant Lindsay Payne pose with a patient in San Pedro, Belize.
"From my wife's and my perspective, true happiness will never be gained by the financial whims of people," said Dr. Whipps, who is semi-retired, running a limited orthodontic practice in Centralia, Illinois. "True satisfaction will only be gained by learning how to give yourself away. Over the years there have been all kinds of books and articles written on this subject and no matter whether you go to Belize, Africa or wherever it might be, the important lesson you will learn from participating in any of these projects is how to give yourself away and to make the lives of others just a little bit easier."

The project has become so popular among its volunteers that about 70 percent of them are repeat participants. However, Dr. Whipps said, "We are always looking for volunteers."

Although the trips are only one week in length for everyone except for Dr. Whipps and Bonnie, the volunteers' connections to one another remain strong after they leave Belize. "I must say that the Belize Mission Project has turned into an unrelated family event and people for years have said that some of the best friends they have are participants in the Belize Mission Project," Dr. Whipps said. "Many of these people even go so far as getting together during the course of the time they are not in Belize. And if they don't do that, they keep up with each other's lives during the course of the year."

Team: Dr. Gordon Gates, with the assistance of his hygienist wife Jan, treat a patient in Corozal, Belize.
Dr. Phillip Bangle, a dentist in Waukesha, Wisconsin, has been on every Belize trip with Dr. Whipps since 2004. He said he was initially attracted to an ADA News article earlier that year about Dr. Whipps, with the story titled "Autumn in Belize." Dr. Bangle said that in the midst of a dreary winter, that "sounded nice."

Since then, Dr. Bangle has grown fond of the volunteers who go to Belize each year, while never forgetting why he goes. "I feel it is my God-given ability to help people," he said. Of the volunteers, he said, "We may have different voices, but we're all singing the same song."

Dr. Bangle said Dr. Whipps' persistence is extraordinary. "His efficiency, his drive is incredible," he said.

Leader: Dr. Frank Whipps, the co-founder of the Belize Mission Project, poses with a patient in Belize in 2005.
Dr. Gordon Gates, a prosthodontist in Boulder, Colorado, has been a Belize Mission Project volunteer for 14 years, and each year his wife and two dental assistants and one hygienist from his office come along. "It's giving back," he said. "It's fun. It's enjoyable. You get so much out of it."

When he first went to Belize, Dr. Gates said, he was already involved in humanitarian trips to the Kingdom of Tonga, but was frustrated in his attempts to help in a more meaningful way. "I went to Belize to see how Dr. Whipps organized it," Dr. Gates said. "I liked it so much, I kept going back. It was a great trip. You go and you're busy."

The Belize Mission Project attracts a "wide spectrum of people," Dr. Gates said. "It really changes their lives."

To volunteer, go to the website belizemissionproject.com and fill out an application. Potential volunteers can also call Dr. Whipps' office at 1-618-532-1821 for more information and to sign up.

To learn about other humanitarian missions, visit the ADA Foundation International Volunteer Website  internationalvolunteer.ADA.org.