Reflections: 9 Years of MOM-n-PA

The MOM-n-PA dental mission just finished its ninth year of providing no-cost service across Pennsylvania. With this momentous occasion, it is important to look back on the original MOM-n-PA in 2013 and how such a large-scale event got started with an idea and a few key leaders. Here are their recollections on the inaugural MOM-n-PA:

1. How did the idea of MOM-n-PA begin?

Gary Davis: The early planning of MOM-n-PA took spark at the ADA meeting in Orlando in October 2010 at an evening social gathering when we ran into a group of dentists from another state that just hosted their first large scale dental mission. They were so excited and proud of their mission. Their enthusiasm was contagious and several of us committed to looking into hosting a mission in Pennsylvania. Bernie Dishler, who I call the “father” of MOM-n-PA, stated, “I want to see this event happen in Pennsylvania!”

Pete Carroll: In 2010, I had just completed serving on the ADA Council of Communications where I was a consultant. I had also just gone off the ADA Give Kids a Smile National Advisory Board. I had multiple friends who were getting various missions off the ground. I understood that we had a large population that was underserved, and it deeply affected me personally. The group sitting around the pool (a very brief but well-deserved break in our schedule after reference committee hearings) were also well connected with fellow ADA volunteers and understood the impact that a two-day clinic could have. My memory is fuzzy, but I remember Tommy Gamba was in and out of the pool, Bill Spruill, Gary Davis, and me were sitting around poolside. There were more people there but I cannot remember who. That was the seed for MOM-n-PA. We discussed not only the free care we could provide but also the importance of finding these folks a dental home. We also realized the opportunity to use the event as a springboard for advocacy. An opportunity to shine a spotlight on the problem.

2. How did your new knowledge and enthusiasm about a dental mission take root upon your return to Pennsylvania?

Bernie Dishler: I found the few people who had heard of MOM and were interested in moving forward. I also found a good bit of negativity by state leaders who doubted we could raise the money. I was moving into PDA Presidency and I wanted to establish the MOM under my administration and asked Gary to be the General Chair.

Gary Davis: Originally our plan was to have a small group of dentists from the Philadelphia area raise funds and organize a mission at Temple. However, after talking with other states that already hosted large-scale missions, we learned that we would need over $200,000 in funding and much more planning and time than we expected. We had a choice: To drop the idea or to get a large group of leaders together and work on our first mission. And this is when the power of organized dentistry stepped in. Bernie Dishler who was the president of the PDA took the lead and started inviting leaders from the PAGD and the PDA to be a part of our team with the goal of organizing and raising funds for a MOM-type non-profit.

Ron Heier: I was not involved in the very first discussion about holding the first MOM. I believe Gary Davis, Bruce Terry, and Bernie Dishler were the “founding fathers.” Very early on I became involved in the planning due to my extensive contacts and having been co-chair of volunteers when the ADA Annual Session had been in Philadelphia in 2005. Gary Davis had already been on several mission trips to Ecuador and he was very motivated to bring a large scale dental clinic to Pennsylvania to help individuals unable to access dental care and to relieve their suffering from dental disease.

3. The founding team was formed in April 2012: Drs. Gary Davis, Bernie Dishler, Bill Spruill, Pete Carroll, Julie Ann Barna, Tom Gamba, Bruce Terry, Ron Heier, and Renee Dempsey. What are your recollections from that original planning team? What strengths do you specifically recall from these individual team members, and how do you feel that affected the event planning? What do you feel your major contributions were?

Ron Heier: Everyone had their own strengths. Gary was the organizer and provided the most leadership. Bernie had contacts with many medical and dental organizations in the greater Philadelphia area and also throughout the state. Bruce was the logistics expert, he is a clear thinker who can put a vision to life on paper. Bill Spruill had government and political contacts. When we decided on Philadelphia, Renee helped provide valuable contacts.

Bill Spruill: They were all possibility thinkers. We had our share of, “but we’ve never done anything like this. How are we going to do that in PA?” They were never-say-never people.

Julie Ann Barna: I was asked to be in charge of fund raising since I had just come off Foundation President for AGD and had helped secure a large grant from Brian Hufford at Hufford Financial. I agreed but really did not realize how big of a task that was. We did not have a penny to our name and needed money to start securing a venue and the equipment. I remember teasing that we needed a name and came up with MOM-n-PA after the event and our state… it stuck. The PDA Foundation was the first ask and they came up with some seed money. I came home and called our district trustee’s wife… Deb Grove to be my co-chair since she had grant writing experience. We set aside every Wednesday afternoon and I drove to her house in Williamsport and we WORKED. Deb and I wrote grant after grant… some success but many, many rejections. I remember the first big check came from Walmart for $42,000. Mostly, the checks came in for $100 but every dollar counted in those days. We had no budget so it was our stationery, our postage, and our computer that sent in for everything. I don’t know what I would have done without Deb Grove… she was a gift from God.

Tom Gamba: I remember everyone was committed to building a mission in PA where our dentists could experience the opportunity to give something back to our PA citizens. I and other team members attended MOM events in other states to help prepare for our own mission. My contribution was soliciting donated supplies and services.

4. What was the group vision and energy that emerged from those early planning sessions?

Tom Gamba: Our vision was to create an organization in PA to offer ongoing dental care to the underserved. Our energy was powerful, especially from Gary Davis, Bernie Dishler, and Bruce Terry.

Gary Davis: The energy of our founding team was palpable. Believe me, we had plenty of people telling us that this could not be done and that we would never be able to pull off such a large event. But as I stated before, we had a trusting relationship with each other because of our previous projects within organized dentistry and we had each other’s backs. It is amazing what a small group of people can do if they believe in each other and have a shared vision. From the beginning our “shared” mission was to relieve the pain and suffering due to dental disease for the underserved at an annual event, to educate patients on preventive measures, to compile data on the dental needs of the underserved, to educate policymakers, and to find every patient a “Dental Home.”

Ron Heier: We held several meetings as a leadership team and elected a Board of Directors. The group decided that we should rotate our dental mission around the state to areas in need of dental care. In addition, the area had to have a group of dentists who would provide local leadership for our clinic. We decided on the name MOM-n-PA because the name Mission of Mercy was already taken by an organization providing dental services in the south-central part of Pennsylvania.

5. Creating an event from whole cloth had to be stressful. What do you remember the most difficult obstacles were in the early planning phases?

Ron Heier: Stresses of a first event are numerous. Let’s start with raising money. Julie Barna was our fundraising lead who needed to raise over $150,000 for our first MOM-n-PA. That’s an awesome task, especially when donors want to know prior results (which we didn’t have) prior to contributing. Somehow, she pulled it off. We were able to raise the needed money through financial contributions and donations in kind. From large insurance companies to individual donors, people saw the need to provide dental care in the inner city. Gary took protocols written by America’s Dentists Care Foundation (ADCF) and modified them for MOM-n-PA. These were distributed to each lead so they would be able to understand the protocols for their department. Renee and I had to attend dental meetings and publicize MOM-n-PA in search of volunteers.

Bruce Terry: We had lots of questions and lots of concern. Being in Philadelphia for the first event had many challenges. We had issues with amalgam placement at that time. There was fund raising from scratch since this was our first event. We had no record so sponsors were skeptical. We were not sure how many people would show up. We found many other obstacles like Unions workers, city permits, security, and high costs compared with what we had heard in other states. Despite all of this, we remained positive and each one of us worked to solve every problem.

Pete Carroll: The founding group of grassroot dentists certainly met some roadblocks. Many state missions were affiliated with their state associations which gave them resources of staff and funding. The PDA after due diligence decided to keep itself at arm’s length but the PDA Foundation did grant us seed money to get started. Bernie Dishler as then PDA President was an invaluable asset getting us up and running. Julie Barna also provided expertise and energy as our fundraising chair. It’s very difficult to fund a charity event when you have no track record. Gary Davis was the driving force.

6. The first MOM-n-PA was set for May 2013 in Philadelphia. What went into deciding on this location for the inaugural run?

Gary Davis: Most MOMs in other states were in smaller towns. Even the ADCF warned that it may be risky to host our first mission in Philadelphia. But our board looked at several factors and believed that Philly was where we needed to be. Three factors convinced us to select Philadelphia. First and foremost was that Philadelphia, especially north Philadelphia, had an extremely high population of underserved patients. Second, we had two dental schools that had the knowledge and experience of treating the underserved. And third, we had a large population of dentists, hygienists, EFDAs, and assistants just outside Philadelphia that we could recruit as volunteers.

Bill Spruill: We had local support from Temple and community agencies. Several leaders from other state MOMs thought we were crazy to have our first event in a major city, raising concerns of being overwhelmed and having to turn many people away. They suggested starting in a second tier city. They were right in a way. Some of our best MOMs, like Allentown, Erie, Reading, Wilkes-Barre were in PA’s smaller cities.
Ron Heier: The board decided to hold the first MOM-n-PA in Philadelphia for several reasons. There was a definite need for dental care, there were many dental professionals in the geographical area, and we thought there would be a ready pool of lay volunteers. We also thought it would be easier to find financial sponsorship in a large city. Before committing to Philadelphia we had to find an adequate site in an area of the city with access to convenient public transportation. The Liacouras Center was ideal because it was in an underserved area and the Broad Street Subway stopped at the corner. The only negative was the size. An ideal location is a large open space like an expo center or a field house where every department can be on one unobstructed level. At the Liacouras Center we had to have patient and volunteer registration outside on the concourse and seat the waiting patients in the arena seats. Only the clinical areas were in the actual floor of the arena.

7. The location is set, the volunteers recruited, the funds and equipment secured. The weeks leading up to the event would be stressful for most. What was keeping you up at night in the days leading up to the event?

Bernie Dishler: Would the patients show up? We were being careful that we wanted to attract the right patients. We didn’t want a suburban middle-class patient who was told they needed a root canal and decided to get it for free. Dean Ismail from Temple helped us reach social welfare agencies, the Philadelphia Health Commissioner, etc. and we were targeting our publicity to churches in the inner city. Some of our committee wanted us to get the message out on TV and we resisted.

Gary Davis: To this day, the thing that keeps me up before the missions is “Will patients show up?” Let’s face it, coming to the dentist is not the most fun thing to do on a Friday or Saturday. But the communities that we have the honor to serve have shown up and even better, they write us amazing notes and leave with smiles and nice things to say about us. I have complete trust in our “leads” at the mission. Most of our leads at our yearly missions have been their department lead since the first mission. We have a system that works and leaders that want our patients and volunteers to have a great experience that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Ron Heier: Because there was no patient pre-registration, my greatest worry was that we’d have 1,000 volunteers and not enough patients to treat. How would I explain to a hygienist who had traveled 100 miles and paid for a room to sleep for two nights, that we couldn’t keep her busy? As I walked the two blocks at 4:30 a.m. from the dorm room where I had slept to the Liacouras Center, I prayed that we’d have patients lined up like I had seen in Kansas. As I approached Broad Street I was greeted by the sight of patients lined up on Broad Street. Later, I learned that the line snaked all the way to the back of the Liacouras Center. It was going to be a great day.

Bruce Terry: The first event was the most stressful. We were creating something new to many of us. I struggled with the floor plan and the site crew of union electricians, plumbers, and stagehands. We worried about food and parking for volunteers. Mostly we worried if anyone would show up. I remember arriving Friday morning that first year, at the Liacouras Center. It was 4:30 a.m. and there were already more than 300 people in line. We had to cut the line off by 11 a.m. that morning to see all the people that had already arrived. We saw nearly 1,000 people each day that year, 2013.

The treatment floor at the Liacouras Center, 2013

8. The event begins. What unexpected complications did you encounter, and how did the leadership team and volunteers address them?

Pete Carroll: Pulling up at 5 a.m. to see hundreds in line stretching around the block re-enforced the great need. A dental student volunteer who I was mentoring was our first needle stick injury (she recently got married and is a happy general dentist). The days were long but both the volunteers and the patients were very grateful. I remember several dentists telling me this was the best thing they had ever participated in. Some commented that it was about time organized dentistry did something, not realizing we were just a group of dedicated volunteers with no affiliation, just MOM-n-PA.

Bruce Terry: We did not have walkie talkies for everyone that first year, so we would run around and look for everyone. That was how I learned to dress in tie-dye, so that I could be easily spotted. We had to make decisions that were expensive, like paying $3,000 for an electrical cable according to the electricians. We didn’t need it later and left it there for them. We did learn how each of us managed stress and success. I love each of these people and what they do year after year. I have learned that I can count on these volunteers to make stuff happen.

Ron Heier: Logistically, I had to use an off the rack event software system that had been used by several other MOMs and program it for MOM-n-PA. If you want details, I can give them to you, but let’s just say it took several hundred hours to program for the first MOM-n-PA and then monitor and adjust the registrations. Each registration had to be checked and licenses verified. There was an excellent crew at Volunteer Check In which enabled volunteers to be quickly processed and given their name badges and t-shirts. About fifty volunteers showed up without pre-registering and it did take a while to get them registered on the computers and assigned to volunteer positions.

9. What are the standout memories from that original MOM-n-PA in Philadelphia?

Ron Heier: One lasting memory from the first MOM-n-PA was saying goodbye to the volunteers as they left the Liacouras Center. As one endodontist was leaving I thanked him for volunteering. He turned to me and said it was one of the best days of his life. I asked why and he replied that in his private office patients complain if they have to wait 15 minutes beyond their scheduled appointment time for treatment. Today, he continued, some patients waited up to four hours without complaining and each one thanked him when he completed treatment. He said he’d never received so many hugs of gratitude. His reaction to a long day of caring treatment brought me the joy of knowing that the long hours of preparation had made a difference in not only the lives of our patients, but also our volunteers.

Bill Spruill: There were patients who waited all night for both of our clinic days. The gratitude was palpable. Our patients were genuinely thankful for what we were able to accomplish for them. On a comical note, when we began there were patients waiting in the stands above the oral surgery area. When we noticed applause and some cheering for the patients below, we quickly moved the patients waiting to another area of the arena. Lesson learned!

Gary Davis: My standout memories are always the patients. I have received hundreds of hugs from patients that appreciate all that we do. Every year we have one or two patients that see me with tears of joy. One mother told me that we changed her life! She would never have a picture taken with her family because she was embarrassed about her missing front teeth. Now with a new smile she can smile more and have lots of pictures taken with her grandchildren. And lots of volunteers have shared similar stories with me. MOM-n-PA is making a positive difference in the world.

Julie Ann Barna: It was exciting, scary, fulfilling, momentous, gut-wrenching, and fun all in the same sentence. When I looked out at the line of patients, many who had waited all night to get in, I knew it was all worth the sleepless nights. After two full days of running my tail off, I never felt so good in my life.

10. The event wraps, and you have a moment to breathe. What are your feelings following the event?

Gary Davis: Great joy and thankfulness! Every year I have tears in my eyes and I get a sensation of extreme satisfaction. It is an amazing feeling to know that I am a small part of such a life-changing event. I am thankful that so many people leave feeling and looking healthier. I am thankful that so many volunteers showed up to help another person without expecting anything in return. And I am thankful that I have been given the gift of friendship from so many of my colleagues that made this dream a reality. I feel blessed!

Bernie Dishler: An unanticipated reaction was the effect the mission had on the volunteers. We have a tremendous number of repeat volunteers, both lay and professional. I call them MOM groupies. We have people who travel wherever we hold the event, whether its Erie or Philadelphia or Harrisburg or Wilkes Barre. We have one family of two generations that has volunteered at every one of the nine MOM-n-PA missions.

Pete Carroll: As far as satisfaction, I’m going to copy and paste comments made by a patient and posted on Facebook:

If we’re close at all, you probably know that my teeth have been causing me pain for the past five or more years. If we’re not close, you might not know… because I haven’t smiled properly for just as long, if not longer. My teeth have had control over me for way too much of my life.

Well I’m happy to say, that’s no longer the case. This morning I woke up with NO pain at all. For someone who’s been in such severe, agonizing pain for so long, there isn’t even a word to describe how I felt.

Three days ago I went to an open clinic hosted by MOM n PA Dental Missions that promised free dental work to as many as 1,000 patients that day. Their priority was to get the patients out of pain and improve their quality of life.

Instead of the two extractions I expected to remove the pain, they did root canals and fillings on the two teeth in question. They then proceeded to fill eight more teeth that day and told me to come in the next day for one more tooth, a free same-day partial for the two I was already missing, and a cleaning. In the end I had probably over $5,000 of work done that I might not have ever been able to afford.

There is no word to do justice to how I feel. Those volunteers at the clinic have changed the entire landscape of my life. I hope that God or karma or what/whoever they believe in rewards them where I could not; all I could muster for them was a few awkward but heartfelt thanks. I also owe my sister Trisha and my dad all of the thanks in the world for giving me this opportunity.

I don’t have any before pictures. Thankfully so, because my mouth was nothing ANYONE wanted to see (let alone kiss lol) before this was done. But if you see me around, feel free to tell me a joke. I really love laughing again.

Special Thanks to the Pennsylvania Dental Association for Providing Photos