Kelly Clarkson gift helps Arkansas dentist open hometown practice | American Dental Association

Kelly Clarkson gift helps Arkansas dentist open hometown practice

Dr. Giles Willis Jr. seeks to fulfill a dental need in his community

Photo of Dr. Willis and family

Family: Dr. Giles Willis Jr., right, with his wife, Kim, and daughter, Eden, pose for a photo backstage during the taping of the NBC special, “Kelly Clarkson Presents: When Christmas Comes Around,” which aired on Dec. 1.

Standing next to his wife and young daughter, Giles Willis Jr., D.D.S., couldn’t believe what actress Melissa McCarthy and singer-talk show host Kelly Clarkson just told him.
   
“What?” he exclaimed, with the biggest smile on his face.
   
Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Clarkson had announced they, along with e-commerce company Wayfair, were giving Dr. Willis an early Christmas gift: $100,000.
   
The Willis family had been invited to appear in the NBC special, “Kelly Clarkson Presents: When Christmas Comes Around,” which aired on Dec. 1.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said, visibly shocked.

Ms. Clarkson had to tell him to take a breath.
   
“We love what you’re doing in your community,” she added. “And I know it’s a big dream, so we wanted to help.”
   
Dr. Willis’ dream was to open a dental practice in Lafayette County, Arkansas — an area that has not had a dental practice in nearly 20 years.
   
“Will this help?” Ms. Clarkson asked.
Photo of Dr. Willis

Practice: Dr. Giles Willis Jr. said he hopes his story inspires other dentists — especially those who grew up in rural communities or small towns — to consider returning home to practice dentistry, whether it’s opening a dental practice or working in a community clinic. 

All Dr. Willis could do was nod.
   
“It absolutely helped me reach my goal,” Dr. Willis told the ADA News.
   
The donation was enough to help him fully open a three-operatory dental practice in Stamps, Arkansas — a town with a population of less than 1,700. Currently, only one room is available at the practice, which had a soft opening in late November.

For Dr. Willis, opening the practice in Stamps — about five miles away from where he was born and grew up in Lewisville, Arkansas — is a dream come true since his homecoming earlier this year.

It was in Stamps where Dr. Willis’ interest in dentistry first began as an 8-year-old with a painful toothache. He remembers grabbing some tweezers and trying to pull out his own tooth when his parents walked in.

“We have to go to the dentist,” Dr. Willis’ mom said.

It was that experience that inspired him to leave Arkansas in 1999 to pursue dentistry at Howard University in Washington D.C. Dr. Willis also earned a master’s degree in dental public health from AT Still University in 2015.

“I’ve always wanted to help rural and underserved communities,” he said. “In Arkansas, we don’t have a dental school here. So when people leave for dental school, like me, they rarely come back, especially to small towns.”

After graduating from Howard University, Dr. Willis had settled with his family in Cary, North Carolina, where he opened and ran Willis Family Dentistry practice for 14 years.

But every time he visited home, his friends, family and neighbors would often approach him and ask: Did you bring your dental tools?

“I figured if there’s this many people asking me for help,” he said. “Maybe I should do something.”

And in 2019, another sign came. Dr. Willis said his father-in-law became sick and his wife wanted to move back to Arkansas to be closer to family.

Out of curiosity, Dr. Willis asked his mother about the dental building where he once had his tooth pulled.

“She told me there was a for sale sign on it,” Dr. Willis said. “I bought it immediately.”

However, it was no longer a dental office. The building was mainly used for storage. It needed repairs, remodeling and updates, which  included installing a new roof. And a giant oak tree was leaning over the building, threatening to fall and causing damage. So that needed to be cut.

Dr. Willis said his goal was to raise up to $200,000 to pay for construction and to purchase the dental equipment he needed. Then the COVID-19 pandemic came, slowing down his progress.
Photo of Dr. Willis with family

Home: Dr. Giles Willis Jr. enjoys a family moment with his sister, Lecia, and his parents in Lewisville, Arkansas.

In May, a local TV station heard about Dr. Willis' effort to open a dental practice in Lafayette County to fill a need in the community. Residents often must drive to neighboring counties to see a dentist, Dr. Willis said.

By July, Dr. Willis had finally sold his North Carolina practice and moved his family back to Arkansas. Meanwhile, the local news segment somehow reached a producer for “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” who reached out to him.

“I just thought they wanted to feature people from rural communities,” Dr. Willis said.

The show came to Stamps in October to film and interview his friends and family. That was when he learned it would be for a Christmas special. In early November, his family flew to Los Angeles. With giant gift boxes behind them, the Willis family stood face-to-face with Ms. Clarkson and Ms. McCarthy on stage when they learned of the generous donation.

“Once I left the stage, I still couldn’t catch my breath,” Dr. Willis said.

Today, Dr. Willis said he hopes his story inspires other dentists — especially those who grew up in rural communities or small towns — to consider returning home to practice dentistry, whether it’s opening a dental practice or working in a community clinic.

“I can guarantee, the need is out there,” he said. “And like I told the show, I hope we can find the next little Giles Willis who will be inspired to leave for dental school but then come back home.”

Editor’s note: A rural practice can offer several advantages beyond fresh air and open spaces. Namely, rural practices often cost less with lower overhead and higher collections – and a more flexible work-life balance. Many rural communities are anxious to keep a dentist in town rather than twenty miles away. If a town is in danger of losing its only dentist to retirement – or is currently underserved – the community or local bank may be willing to offer financial incentives to dentists who purchase or open a practice. These incentives can include help with loan repayment, low-interest loans, cash incentives, or other perks. Learn more at ADAPracticeTransitions.com.