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Dentist's volunteer work transforms lives with a smile

By Chang Jun in San Francisco | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-04-28 00:23

How many of us would volunteer for 14 years for work that required frequent long-haul international trips, troubleshooting for a globalized team and constantly trying to raise funds?

Colin Wong, a seasoned dentist by profession, has proven it can be done and that's why he received a lifetime achievement award from the Alliance for Smiles (AfS) on April 21.

Wong, along with Dorothy Ferreita who received the "volunteer of the year" award and Tai Wang who was acknowledged for her significant financial support, demonstrate how a single spark of kindness can form an ocean of love regardless of race, background, culture, national boundaries or ideological differences.

Since the inception of AfS in 2004, Wong has been integral to the success of the San Francisco-based non-profit, which was founded by six people with expertise in cleft lip and palate treatment.

Cleft lip and palate is a group of disorders characterized by openings in the lips or roof of the mouth that extend into the nose. The abnormality can cause infant feeding problems, speech and hearing deficiencies and frequent ear infections.

The original AfS founders wanted to use their collective knowledge to create two types of programs: one to send medical teams to sites to perform corrective surgery; and secondly to establish treatment centers so the US protocol of cleft treatment could be replicated.

China was chosen as the first country to receive an AfS medical team, Wong recalled. "The need for treatment is huge — one in 350 children was born annually with the cleft anomaly. Plus we had pre-existing relationships with the then China Population Welfare Foundation and the State Family Planning Commission to help carry out our programs," he said.

Since then, he has been involved with more than 40 medical missions to China, acting as vice-president for China relations, mission director, site negotiator and liaison with China partners and hospitals, said the alliance.

A typical AfS medical mission usually takes up to two weeks. The team is comprised of 15 medical professionals and supported by another five non-medical members. "All are volunteers," said Wong.

During a mission, usually 70 to 100 children receive corrective surgery. The team works side-by-side with local medical professionals to share ideas on proper medical techniques and procedures, as well as follow-up care.

In the past 14 years, more than 4,000 children have been treated through the alliance's missions to China, and the numbers keep growing, said Wong, adding the US-based organization has expanded its practice from northeastern to southwestern China.

"To repair cleft lips and palates, the initial surgery only addresses one part of the problem," said Alison Healy, executive director of AfS. Cleft patients require ongoing treatment in the disciplines of dentistry, orthodontia, speech therapy and sometimes psychological counseling.

In order to duplicate the American standard of post-surgery practice, Wong and his team maneuvers with government agencies and partners to help establish five treatment centers.

"Our objective is to continuously provide dental treatment, speech therapy, parental education and physiological counseling at the centers," he said.

The first treatment center was opened in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province in early 2007, followed by a second in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province in late 2009, said Wong. Later on, they established another three in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, and Zunyi and Anshun in Guizhou province, respectively.

The alliance will continue to expand the treatment center concept, said Karl Wustrack, chairman of the AfS board.

Although he is retired from his practice and other organizations for which he volunteers, Wong said he "definitely will be around when I need to.

"I will never forget the beaming smiles of those children — their lives are transformed forever."

Contact the writer at junechang@chinadailyusa.com

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