Dr. Spencer Pope knew that he wanted to be an orthodontist since he had braces at a young age. Dr. Pope not only fulfilled his career goals, but turned his profession into a bridge to help young kids and teens receive orthodontic services they couldn’t get on their own.
As the co-founder of the Illinois Donated Orthodontic Services program, Dr. Pope has matched a multitude of patients to volunteer orthodontists who offer pro-bono treatment. He’s helping kids gain their best and beautiful smiles one-by-one, and he has no plans of stopping. Now, Pope wants other orthodontists to join a program that’s changed his life for the better.
Describe your volunteer role with the Donated Orthodontic Services (DOS).
In 2009, the American Association of Orthodontists started the Donated Orthodontic Services (DOS) program and they picked five states as pilot states — Illinois was one of them. I was the President of the Illinois Society of Orthodontists at the time, so I figured that’d be a good fit and I wanted to help start this program and make us successful. So myself and a colleague co-founded the Illinois program, and Illinois has been the most successful state — we’ve had the most kids treated. It was such a successful program across all of the pilot states that the American Association of Orthodontics made it national and the DOS Committee was created, which is what I’ve sat on the past couple of years. Now the program is national, but Illinois still is the number one state.
As a committee chair, I work with our program coordinator to set the organizational vision in order to help grow the program and identify volunteers in other states where maybe we have patients in need of treatment. I also assist in identifying new volunteers and strategize how we want to grow the program. Our program coordinator handles the day to day things, but I really do enjoy the scholarship program. In order for the kids to apply to the organization, there’s a $200 charge, but there are some kids and families that can’t even cover the $200. So we have a scholarship program that kids can apply to that will cover part or all of that application fee, and I really enjoyed reading the applications for the kids. They write their own letter of why their smiles are important to them and it’s really very heartwarming. Some of these kids really come from difficult backgrounds and it’s just really nice that we’re able to help them and provide them with the benefit of a beautiful smile.
Why is pro-bono orthodontist work needed?
We know how important a smile is for self-confidence and self-esteem. When I have kids come into my office for treatment, a lot of times they don’t want to smile because they don’t like how their teeth look, they don’t want to open their mouth or that their mom says that they never smile in pictures and always keep their mouths closed. I was fortunate growing up because my parents were able to provide orthodontic treatment for me and my brothers, but not every family is that fortunate. So the goal of the DOS is to provide a lifelong, healthy, functional and beautiful smile for all kids. That’s what our vision has always been. When the kids are finished, they’ll write a thank you letter as well and some of the letters that I get almost always makes me cry. I’m just so grateful for having the opportunity to give the service that they couldn’t otherwise get. It’s really nice.
How have you helped grow the pro-bono program and recruit volunteers?
I think orthodontists are pretty generous. A lot of them donate free time and care to kids in the community. What we want to do is try to help identify kids that maybe don’t even know about the program. So we’re trying to raise awareness to orthodontists and patients that the program is there, and then grow the program by helping match them with volunteers. From our standpoint, just making orthodontists aware of the program and getting them excited about us so they’ll want to join and contribute is one way that we want to try and grow. The most difficult part isn’t identifying kids and treatments; it’s matching them with volunteers. That’s why one of our task forces is working on expanding the program and identifying volunteers in all 50 states.
What inspires you to volunteer?
My parents were always very generous; they were very involved in our church, community and in scouts. So I kind of just saw them give back and my brothers and I always knew that it was important to do.
For me, I wanted to be an orthodontist since I was a teenager, probably since I had braces. I was so excited when I got into it and so grateful that I wanted to give back to the profession and the DOS seemed like the ideal way to give back because you’re giving orthodontic services to kids who couldn’t otherwise afford it. I also have a lot of colleagues that are extremely generous with their time as well, so I just find that dentists tend to be very generous.
What have you learned through your experience as a volunteer?
I’ve learned to be more compassionate and understanding of other people that come from all different walks of life, and that they all need to be treated with respect and compassion. It feels good to give back and it feels good to help out. People are very grateful, and hopefully, doing something good for someone else inspires them at some point in their life; maybe they can help someone else out. I’ve learned to always try and help and you maybe can’t appreciate it at the moment, but over time, you know it’ll come back — like getting a nice letter from a patient thanking you or something like that.
Why is it important for others to get involved?
I think helping each other is important. It’s the most important thing we can do. Everybody needs help at some point in their lives, and helping feels good. It’s the right thing to do. I think that the more that you give back and the more involved you get, the more fun it becomes. That inspires you to do more. When you give back to others, you’re helping yourself as well. It’s fun.
Are there any partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about?
We just had our annual meeting in May and we did award the first Ray George Award; he was the orthodontist who was the mastermind of the DOS program. Our committee created the award in his honor and we awarded it to our first recipient, Dr. Michael Durbin this past May. He was the co-founder of the Illinois program with me.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Spencer? Find local volunteer opportunities.