Making a difference in the world has been a lifelong goal for Dr. Kyung Ha, the Millburn dentist who also serves many patients in Maplewood and South Orange.
Several years ago, after growing her business and raising her son and daughter, Ha learned about the Kinder Smile Foundation, a Montclair-based non-profit organization that provides free dental care to underprivileged children in New Jersey and abroad, reigniting her passion for volunteerism.
Ha says she began by visiting daycare and head-start programs to educate children on the importance of proper brushing and flossing and soon had the opportunity to travel to low-income and underserved areas beyond the Garden State.
While Ha enjoys her humanitarian work immensely, the fact that her traveling companion and eager assistant is none other than her teenage daughter, Lea Lee, makes the journeys that much more fulfilling.
For the past three years, Ha and Lee, a senior at Millburn High School, have traveled both in and outside the U.S. to serve children where the need for oral care is great and the resources scarce. This spring, the pair will visit McRoberts, Kentucky and Mt. Olivet Primary School in Jamaica with Kinder Smile and spend four days in each destination educating children and their parents and treating disadvantaged youngsters.
To raise additional support for their philanthropic efforts, Lee has started a GoFundMe page where donors can contribute. On the site, Lee explains why these trips are so vital.
“We will provide approximately 700 children with free dental services such as cleanings, fillings, sealants, and extractions. Most children that we have seen in the past have never seen a dentist in their lives, so their mouths are full of decay that can lead to gum disease. This can affect so much from eating to talking. In order to live healthy and happy lives, children need healthy teeth.”
Lee notes that donations of arts and craft supplies such as construction paper, scissors, crayons, play dough have been requested by the Mt. Olivet school. Board and educational games as well as puzzles, computer parts, laptops, and a DVD player would also be appreciated.
Strengthening Their Mother-Daughter Bond
Sharing their volunteer mission has allowed the mother-daughter duo to see new sides of each other they might not have recognized in their day-to-day lives. In working side by side, Ha says she has been most impressed with Lea’s instincts and abilities.
“It makes me very, very happy to have my daughter with me,” says Ha. “It’s so natural for children. They have big hearts and want to help everybody and you don’t have to have any (technical) skills to do that. I have been so impressed and before this I didn’t know that part of my daughter. At home, we think of our children as just spoiled kids, but you get in that situation and something different happens. She’s a very hard worker and the best assistant.”
Lee agrees she’s come to view her mom in new ways too.
“Before, I never saw exactly what she did but then I was able to assist her on our trips and it really opened my eyes,” she says. “Not only did I get to see how hard she had to work for each and every tooth she had to drill or extract, but (also) the difference she made on each child. She fixed their pain that they suffered from for who knows how long and protected them from further problems. I truly appreciate her skill; some call her an angel.”
Rising to the Challenge
While Ha and her team are prepared to provide patient education and perform both routine and emergency dental care, depending on which area they visit, the challenges can be daunting.
“We do a lot of extractions, a lot of cleaning and fluoride (treatments), and when we have water, fillings and sealants. We try to do a lot of preventative work to stop something before it becomes painful. Once we were in an orphanage and there was no electricity or water. It’s different everywhere you go,” she says.
Working under those conditions forces the team to rise to the occasion, Ha says.
“Anyone can have an office and start a business, this reminds you why you got into your profession. It’s so good to help people,” she says.
While on the trips, Ha and the team often run into other physicians who are also giving back.
“Everyone seems so happy,” she notes. “It really makes you realize why you became a professional. What you get back is so much more than you give.”
A Life-Changing Experience
For Lee, the most rewarding part is the gratitude those in need express for the entire team. “They are always so thankful and excited that we have come to help them because for many, it is their first time seeing a dentist,” she explains. “In the privileged towns we live in, going to the dentist is such a norm for us, not a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
The experience has also inspired Lee to consider a career that offers the opportunity to give back.
“A job where I can help someone or something everyday, I think, is a job worth doing for the rest of my life,” the student explains. “I’m not necessarily interested in dentistry, but next year, I want to either study public health, conservation biology, or environmental studies.
“Also, the bonds I’ve made with a few of the children are unforgettable. Being a part of these children’s lives is such a heartwarming feeling.”
Ha too says the work not only holds a special place in her heart but also has helped her recapture and fulfill those youthful dreams of serving others in need.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” she says. “We get too involved with making a living that we forget who we used to be. If you think about it, if every professional and every organization just gave a little back, it all adds up.”
To support Lea Lee and Dr. Ha in their efforts, visit Lea’s GoFundMe page.
To learn more about Kinder Smile visit the Foundation’s website.