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Missions of Mercy is his life's mission

Richmond, Va.—After spending 30 years in private dental practice; serving in numerous organized dentistry leadership posts; and working as a dental educator, examiner and researcher, Dr. Terry Dickinson says he realized in 2000 that he'd found his life's mission—helping the underserved through the Missions of Mercy Project.

"I began serving as executive director at the Virginia Dental Association in 1999, and I was thinking about what I wanted to complete as I headed into the sunset of life," said Dr. Dickinson. "Why was I here and what should I have done or be doing? When we were in the middle of that first MOM event, I realized, ‘This is it!' "

The award recognizes individual volunteer commitment and leadership that has had a broad impact on oral health and the improvement of the human condition. The award is given to an ADA member dentist who has contributed to alleviate human suffering, demonstrated significant leadership, served as an inspiration to others and established a legacy that is of ongoing value and benefit to those in need in the U.S. and/or abroad.

"The ingenuity, devotion and enthusiasm required to develop the Missions of Mercy projects in Virginia was remarkable," said ADA President Ron Tankersley. "Dr. Dickinson's efforts stand out because of their profound impact as MOM projects spread across the country. These projects have delivered needed dental care to countless patients, engendered a new level of professionalism in countless dentists and demonstrated the tremendous unmet need for dental care to countless policy makers."

Dr. Dickinson came to the Virginia Dental Association after practicing dentistry in Houston for three decades. Serving as VDA executive director, he said, allowed him to gain a broad view of the profession and the outside forces that affect it. And the VDA leadership enabled him to make his mission a reality and to help it grow and thrive.

Since he founded the Virginia MOM a decade ago, more than a dozen states have launched MOM programs and there could be 20 programs operating nationwide by the end of 2010.

"I realized my mission was to focus on bringing help to those who struggle every day to put food on the table, to pay rent, to put gas in the gas tank," he said. "In turn, that helps our profession as we stress the importance of giving back. Patients who can't afford dental care and policymakers see us as part of the solution. I feel blessed that I happened into this and every year I see things happen that send a powerful message about the profession."

"His legacy will be that of a caring, devoted individual who has shared his knowledge and experiences of how to establish a project such as MOM and shared the resources with others," said Dr. Charles. L. Cuttino, of Richmond, the VDA president when Dr. Dickinson founded MOM. "He will be known as the man who opened peoples' eyes that there is an access problem in this country and that opened doors to individuals and legislative bodies to help provide a solution to the problem. He is truly a humanitarian."

His favorite part of working at the MOM events, he says are talking to the people who come for dental treatment.

"I usually do triage so I can be in one spot if someone needs to find me and ask me questions," he said, "I love triage. I love talking to people to hear their stories. The stories are so powerful. They are stoic. You don't usually get to hear their stories because they handle their burdens privately. I feel humbled talking to them about their struggles."

An important function of the MOM Project, Dr. Dickinson said, is to offer dental students a chance to learn and—more importantly—understand the importance of volunteering.

"These kids have a real perk by having the opportunity to participate," he said. "When they graduate, they will know it's about being part of a profession that cares about people and that is what our members stand for."

Affectionately dubbed "Trial Boss," Dr. Dickinson says his volunteers—general dentists, specialists, dental team members, dental students and support staff, "let me herd ‘m up so they can take care of patients and I can make the quick decisions." In 2007, a group of dental student volunteers presented him with the unofficial, but touching tribute, the "I am a great dentist" award.

Dr. Dickinson is a member of the ADA, the VDA, the Texas Dental Association, the Greater Houston Dental Society, The Academy of General Dentistry, the Virginia Academy of General Dentistry, the American College of Dentists, the International College of Dentists, the American Society of Association Executives, the University of Texas Dental Branch Alumni Association and Delta Sigma Delta Dental Fraternity. His awards and honors are numerous, and include a National Governor's Association Distinguished Service Award, the National Rural Health Association Rural Health Practitioner of the Year Award, two ADA Presidential Citations and many other awards.

"Sometimes I think about how lucky I am," Dr. Dickinson adds. "Where would I be if I'd taken a two-degree turn to the right or left? Would I be as happy? I am able to do something that brings joy to me. I feel so fortunate to be where I am. I feel like I've hit a home run with a job at VDA that allows me to help how dentistry is viewed in Virginia and to highlight the work our members do. This award is an honor for me, but more than that, a reflection of the outstanding VDA leadership through the years."

Dr. Dickinson will be honored at the 2010 annual session in Orlando and receive a $5,000 monetary donation to the Missions of Mercy Project.

The ADA Division of Global Affairs is now accepting nominations for the 2011 ADA Humanitarian Award. To download the nomination packet log on to: http://www.ada.org/1477.aspx