Meet the dentist who helps the homeless
During the past 20 years, Brighter Way Institute has left an indelible imprint on hundreds of thousands of faces: Smiles. Since its founding in 2001 by Dr. Kris Volcheck, Brighter Way Institute has provided an estimated 1.3 million oral and dental healthcare services to more than 158,000 of our community’s most overlooked and underserved children, men, women and veterans at an estimated market value of more than $183 million.
Dr. Kris Volcheck, an openly gay man and a former dental professional. Volcheck is now the founder and CEO of Brighter Way Institute and is an excellent example of a person using their own previous experiences to help with a new trade.
“Brighter Way Institute treats the oral health and surgical needs of impoverished and often desperate individuals,” Volcheck says. Such groups include not only members of the LGBTQ+ community but also the homeless, the developmentally disabled, the impoverished, domestic violence victims, foster children, and veterans.
“However, just as importantly, we are providing a place for them to touch base and to use BWI’s 3 clinics and mobile dental center as a referral source to our partner agencies who provide care in medical, mental health, housing, etc.”
HOW A DETOUR LED TO HIS TRUE PATH
While Volcheck previously worked as a dentist he eventually realized the profession was not for him. When asked why this was, Volcheck said: “Dentistry is a critical part of everyone’s health and most of my colleagues truly enjoy their profession. I, on the other hand, was clearly not suited for the practice of dentistry. Many patients are experiencing pain, fear, and anxiety with simply being seated in a dental chair. I absorbed that pain and anxiety at a personal level. I did not come into a healing profession to induce fear and pain, I came to give comfort, solace, and healing. I did not have the fortitude to withstand that daily dynamic.”
Upon Volcheck’s epiphany, he began to pursue an MBA. “So, after practicing for over 9 years, I decided that I needed to change careers. While I was still practicing dentistry, I enrolled at ASU and earned my MBA. Surely, I thought I could combine my DDS and MBA to do work outside of a dental office. I resorted again to my comfort zone in academics to take me to my next step.having no idea what that next step was. Fortunately, at my MBA graduation, I met the founder of the CASS Homeless Shelter, Mary Orton."
It was a meeting that would transform Volcheck's career trajectory. He volunteered at the shelter. "I realized that I related most with this group that we refer to as ‘homeless’. I was them and I wanted to hang out with them. After two years, I left my practice to my business partner and became employed as a full-time case manager working in a trailer, a field, and on the street with the homeless for 7 years. I felt fortunate for finding my place and concurrently I felt as if I were a failure for not living up to the potential of having a DDS and MBA.”
Ultimately Volcheck was able to both assuage this fear and utilize his DDS and MBA for the great cause of helping the homeless, a group he identified strongly with and felt comfortable around.
HOW BEING GAY POINTED THE WAY
“However, by this time," says Volcheck, "I had come to think of being gay as a true gift in another way...for becoming comfortable with mold-breaking. I was not going to have a wife, I was not going to fit into corporate America, I was not going to be many things that I knew were expected of me...so why not accept a career with the homeless? This acceptance was met with good fortune. A colleague mentioned to me that a two-chair mobile dental unit was available from the Arizona Office of Oral Health to use for underserved populations.
"The homeless had no dental care, there was a trailer available, I still had my dental license, but definitely had no interest in practicing dentistry. So, I persuaded 40 volunteers to treat the homeless in the trailer in the field and this is how Brighter Way Institute started. I did not have to practice dentistry, I got to be with the homeless, I got to use my DDS and MBA and most importantly the homeless no longer had to suffer with dental pain.”
Dr. Volcheck also attributes his being a gay man as influencing his career path. “I had always wanted to be a medical professional, either a Dentist, Physician or a large animal veterinarian. My thoughts were that all of these professions bring health, pain relief and hope to the patients. I chose dentistry simply because my dentist was the cool guy out of the three. Cool enough to smoke cigarettes and drink Scotch while he was injecting me. However, having a cool dentist is not a good reason to choose a career. There were other forces that were not apparent to me at the time that made me strive to become educated to a doctoral level.
"As a gay male, the feeling of being the ‘other’ was omnipresent. I translated that ‘otherness’ as me being ‘less than the people who were not in my category, which I assumed was everyone else on Earth. So, I had to prove myself to them and to me. I chose academics to shine, and to me the height of academics was having Dr. in front of my name. Obviously, much later on, we recognize acceptance is the key to vanquishing our feeling of being the ‘odd person out, not any type of achievements. I may never have strived for a DDS or MBA unless I felt inferior as a gay male and had to prove myself. I may have never given up that career unless being gay had helped my see that I did not fit the mold and with acceptance, I no longer felt compelled to fit the mold when it came to my career. It soon became obvious that these were qualities easily transferable to becoming a CEO in the nonprofit.”
A BRIGHTER FUTURE
Recently the Brighter Way Institute celebrated its 20th anniversary. “There have been many stepping stones from when I first started the dental program in a trailer in a field surrounded by homeless individuals – soon to become our patients.” said Volcheck reminiscing.
In lieu of the anniversary a number of events were highlighted by Volcheck. “We have just re-opened the operations of our BWI/United Healthcare Mobile Dental Center and we will be re-opening the Boys and Girls Club Dental Center on Jan. 1. Also noteworthy, the BWI Board, together with community philanthropists, have made a remarkable accomplishment in establishing Brighter Way’s first Endowment this year. This fund demonstrates our commitment to building strong, enduring assets for the future sustainability of BWI and our commitment to the homeless community.”
Volcheck closed the interview by urging people to remember to think of the homeless, be sympathetic to their plight, and think critically about why they are in their current state. “When anyone thinks of the homeless or WHY they are homeless please always ask the question: What trauma have they suffered to put them in such a desperate state?”
About Brighter Way Institute
Founded in 2001 by Dr. Kris Volcheck as Arizona’s only dental clinic for individuals experiencing homelessness, today the Brighter Way Institute provides comprehensive oral health care for vulnerable and uninsured children, adults, veterans, individuals experiencing homelessness and individuals with special needs. Brighter Way Institute is one of the largest volunteer-driven dental clinics in the nation, providing services at Brighter Way Dental Center at the Human Services Campus, Brighter Way Parsons Center for Pediatric Dentistry and Orthodontics, Boys & Girls Club of Metro Phoenix and through the Brighter Way UnitedHealthcare Mobile Unit. Every year, Brighter Way Institute treats more than 8,000 individuals experiencing homelessness, more than 18,000 children and more than 1,000 veterans. We transform more than smiles.
For more information, visit www.brighterwaydental.org