Volunteering for yourself and others: TIMA Perth

Posted on 20th May 2020

Dr Emma Perry treats a dental patient

The Tzu Chi Foundation solves dental problems for those in need. However, as volunteer dentist Dr Emma Perry explains, TIMA Perth is also a place for dental professionals to celebrate their skills, work with a compassionate and motivated group of people, and contribute to their own mental wellbeing

Have you ever had an experience where you’ve felt the pure, unadulterated glow of love and compassion? Feels good, huh? This is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when someone asks you to volunteer. I know where my mind goes: “I’m too busy, I’m too stressed, I need a sleep in on Sunday mornings, I won’t make much of a difference, someone else can do it.” Then, instead of relief, on come feelings of guilt for being “selfish”. Where is the good in this situation? I’ve helped no one, including myself.

Mental health problems like anxiety and depression are on the rise in our community; nobody is immune just because they have enough money, a good job, a supportive family. The WA Government initiative Act-Belong-Commit has an evidence-based approach to improving community-wide mental health. The “Commit” corner of this triangle urges people to nurture their own mental health by doing “something meaningful”. This can take the form of learning a new skill, helping a neighbour, taking on a challenge, and volunteering. As a dental professional, you have a unique set of skills that will make your volunteering experience all the more meaningful. Not just anyone can volunteer as a dentist, oral health therapist, dental hygienist, or dental assistant. You can.

I started volunteering with Tzu Chi Foundation Perth’s Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) in 2016, but Dr Lydia See and her team at TIMA Perth have been growing their programme in Perth since 2013. It has gone from emergencies in a single day, twice a year, to monthly clinics supporting the oral health of homeless and refugee people living in our local community. Patients are screened and found through community organisations that looks after homeless, refugees and socially disadvantaged individuals. The waitlist for appointments has grown, but don’t mistake this for a stressful environment. It’s merely a reflection of the success of the initiative, and the great need for providing basic dental care to those who have fallen through the cracks of our government-run welfare system. The actual clinic days are efficiently organised and provide volunteer clinicians with autonomy around appointment lengths. TIMA is founded on compassion, not just drilling and filling. The time spent building rapport with patients is valued just as highly as the perfect contact point and occlusal balance of a restoration. I have never felt rushed, stressed, compromised, or out of my depth when treating TIMA patients, thanks to the overwhelming support of the clinical and non-clinical volunteers alike.

It also doesn’t have to be a big commitment. For the monthly clinics to date, there have been over 30 dentists, over 20 auxiliaries, over 40 students involved, with each monthly clinic utilising around 30 clinical and non-clinical volunteers each session. Giving one or two days a year lightens the load for everyone, and it does make a difference. The non-clinical volunteers make the clinics run smoothly by providing breakfast and lunch for volunteers, escorting patients around the building, completing administration tasks, and spending important time chit-chatting with patients as they wait. The result is a well-oiled machine, and the least intimidating environment possible for patients and volunteers alike. It’s impossible to leave the half-day clinical session without a smile, a full belly, and a nourished soul.

Yes, TIMA is helping solve dental problems for those in need. But it’s also a place for dental professionals to celebrate their skills, work with a compassionate and motivated group of people, and contribute to their own mental wellbeing. Don’t volunteer out of guilt. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder said about our planet, “Don’t feel guilty. If you’re gonna save it, don’t save it out of guilt, or anger, or fear. Those are the very things that are actually making the world worse. Save it because you love it. Because it’s part of you.”

If you’d like to find out how to be part of Tzu Chi Foundation’s TIMA projects in Perth, please contact Lydia at timaperth@gmail.com.

“Tzu Chi Foundation Perth would like to thank the continual support and contribution of the University of Western Australia – Oral Health Centre of WA, as well as the wider West Australian community including oral health promotions team at dental health services, all our patients, case/support/recovery workers and our volunteers.”