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HVO celebrates 25 years

Washington—Marking its 25th anniversary, Health Volunteers Overseas has spent a quarter century reaching out to health care providers in developing nations to help enhance the health and well being of millions of people worldwide through education, training and professional support.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization has generated some impressive numbers. It has sent close to 4,400 health professional volunteers on nearly 8,000 assignments to 182 different sites since it was founded in 1986. Its programs span 15 health care specialties: anesthesia, dermatology, hand surgery and hand therapy, hematology, internal medicine, nurse anesthesia, nursing education, oncology, oral health, orthopedics, pediatrics, physical therapy, wound and lymphedema and special projects.

IMAGE: HVO volunteers are exposed to a variety of cultures
Global view: HVO volunteers are exposed to a variety of cultures as they train local health care workers and help them develop sustainable oral health programs. Photo courtesy Dr. Sally Hewett

In 1990, when the American Dental Association wanted to become involved in international humanitarian programs, they approached HVO. Since then the ADA has been a sponsor and some 300 U.S. and Canadian dentist volunteers have completed more than 670 assignments in 40 different dental programs in 28 countries.

Dr. Sally Hewett, an ADA member dentist in Bainbridge Island, Wash., said she found “a deep connection with the dental faculty and students in the dental school of the University of Health Sciences in Vientiane, Laos.”

An avid volunteer for both organized dentistry and humanitarian causes, Dr. Hewett served the ADA as a member of the Council on Annual Sessions and currently serves as a member of the ADA International Development Subcommittee, a subcommittee of the Committee on International Programs and Development.

After her first trip to Laos with HVO, she became the program director and made three additional journeys to Vientiane. She said a memory that stands out for her happened not in the dental school or clinic setting, but in a Buddhist temple.

“I was visiting a Buddhist temple in Vientiane and coincidentally was there while one of the dental school professors was worshipping,” Dr. Hewett said. “She drew me inside with her and shared with me her prayers and beautiful, honorable Buddhist rituals. I continue to experience my Lao colleagues as brilliant, heartfelt, hardworking professionals with very few material resources, but they share fully and completely the most soulful parts of their lives with trust and friendship.”

Dr. David Frost, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in Chapel Hill, N.C., began his involvement with HVO in 1987, and has provided education and care through HVO programs in Nepal, India, Vietnam and Peru. He currently serves the organization as chair emeritus of the HVO Board of Directors and as chair of the ADA International Development Subcommittee that manages the ADA/HVO Oral Health Initiative Programs.

“Being on the HVO board is a treat in many ways,” said Dr. Frost. “I appreciate the multiple areas and ways HVO affects health care in the developing world. We are a global community and HVO’s volunteers, staff and leaders are making a difference in the lives of individuals by improving the grassroots level of health care with the exchange of knowledge and experience with health care workers in the developing world. The board deals with broader issues such as funding, regulation, tax issues, recruitment, brand recognition and government issues which are not necessary at the volunteer or program level.”

Dr. Frost added that he has too many memorable experiences to list but will always cherish “the many smiles and comments of ‘Namaste’ or the equivalent from the doctors, patients and family members I’ve come in contact with through HVO.”

For more than a decade, Dr. Martin Hobdell, member of the ADA Committee on International Programs and Development and International Development Subcommittee, has worked with the Faculty of Odonto-Stomatology in the University of Health Sciences, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to help establish a part-time diploma/master’s degree course in dental public health.

“In all, some 64 students successfully completed this program. Twenty gained a master’s degree,” said Dr. Hobdell. “This program was repeated three times from 1999 to 2008. Many of the graduates from the program now occupy senior posts in the Public Dental Services and the Faculties of Odonto-stomatology in Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho in the South of Vietnam.”

HVO has launched similar programs in Cambodia and Laos, he added. Dr. Hobdell says he has made more than 50 trips on behalf of HVO, including teaching visits of two to four weeks each, visits to develop curriculum and visits to work with local ministries of health to plan facilities and field work.

“As a teacher and researcher, the most memorable occasions I have experienced are those where I see a light suddenly shine in a student’s eyes as I am explaining something, when the student understands and owns the knowledge for themselves—being able to understand how it impacts on their own situation,” said Dr. Hobdell. “Then I know I have made a difference to at least one person who, in the future, may be able to do the same for others by changing the way in which they view the health of populations, and the population of their own country in particular, and make a real difference on a much grander scale. Volunteering doesn’t make me rich in business terms, but it enriches me personally immeasurably.”

HVO has a long-standing relationship with the American Dental Association. The ADA was the third health association to become an HVO sponsor. In 2009, HVO combined its dentistry and oral surgery programs into one oral health initiative, having the ADA and the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons join forces to streamline activities in dentistry, dental public health and oral surgery.

Dentists can celebrate HVO’s silver anniversary in a variety of ways, said HVO Executive Director Nancy Kelly.

“Dentists are always needed as volunteers,” said Ms. Kelly. “HVO has eight active programs where we need the skills and expertise of dentists and oral surgeons. This is a diverse set of sites so everyone interested in making a contribution to improving oral health care in developing countries should be able to find a site that is suited to his or her interests.”

Dental professionals can also make a contribution to HVO’s Silver Fund. “These gifts will strengthen HVO’s ability to meet new challenges and respond to new opportunities in the coming years,” said Ms. Kelly. “Dentists can also continue to support the ADA/HVO Adopt-a-Practice Campaign in Haiti. The goal of this partnership is to rebuild 35 dental practices destroyed by the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.”

For more information on HVO programs or to make a donation to the Silver Fund visit

To donate to the ADA/HVO Adopt-a-Practice Campaign in Haiti, log on to or

MAGE: HVO programs can include providing oral health products and education to children
Promoting healthy smiles: HVO programs can include providing oral health products and education to children. Photo courtesy Dr. Michael Unger