A Superman video, of all things, inspired the final mental push one dental student needed to fly with an ambitious dream.
“I had this idea for a multicultural volunteer organization that would bring people together to do good; to unite and not divide,” says Dr. Twain Henry II ’19 of the spark that energized him during his second year of dental school.
Henry has long thought of the world as light over darkness, good over bad. His positive outlook has been known to sway others to see the world as he does and then join him in taking that attitude out into the world to spread light. Like Superman.
‘Strength, Faith and Honor’
During childhood, Henry would stage elaborate gladiator battles with friends using swords fashioned from foam-wrapped, duct-taped PVC pipe. Those hero-based engagements taught Henry the value of teamwork.
He even adopted a mantra—“strength, faith and honor”—that continued through his days at Prairie View A&M University and still defines his life post-dental school.
Those three words, he says, help him “remember that no matter how dark the world gets, it’s up to me to surround myself with those I love and bring light to others.”
With input and encouragement from close friends, he christened LIGHT at Texas A&M College of Dentistry and set out to invite participants and share his enthusiasm with them and the community. The group has evolved over the past two years from a loosely bound cluster of community-minded students to an official organization with a leadership structure and bylaws.
“To actually build an organization from the ground up is time consuming,” says Leeanna Bartlett, director of social services, who, as LIGHT’s faculty adviser, assisted Henry in refining the group’s charter documents and seeking approvals. “Twain didn’t shy away from that; he jumped right in. He was excited about it and that’s contagious.”
“I had this idea for a multicultural volunteer organization that would bring people together to do good; to unite and not divide.” — Dr. Twain Henry II
Henry shouldered much of the organizational responsibilities for LIGHT its first year. However, he knew the key to the group’s survival long after he graduated was to empower younger leaders and seek official recognition for the organization.
No dues or monetary donations are required; Henry did not want financial considerations to stand in the way of students joining. Time devoted to hands-on service is the only expectation.
“It’s vital that we use our skills inside and outside dentistry to bring about change in the world,” he says. “I just wanted to create an organization where individuals could use their gifts or passions to help others regardless of race, religion, creed, political background, sex, or anything that would put someone in a cookie cutter image.”
Community service is no novelty for College of Dentistry students; virtually every organization incorporates volunteer opportunities. LIGHT’s distinction is that it is the first student group to focus primarily on these types of activities.
Since Bartlett’s earliest days on campus 37 years ago, she has secured student volunteers for service opportunities outside the college walls. These days, she sees students’ increased interest in volunteering.
“Instead of being a passenger, they are conducting that train,” she says. “There was a time when we had a hard time recruiting passengers. It has gone from ‘I’ll help out’ to ‘I’ll organize, I’ll implement, I’ll be in charge.’ That shows a lot of commitment. It’s very exciting.”
As for LIGHT members, a digital app for group messaging keeps them in the loop with up-to-the-minute information on upcoming community outreach opportunities. Students respond by giving their time: at least 725 volunteer hours and counting since fall 2017; impressive for an impromptu group of do-gooders during a two-year pilot program.
Outreach recipients are refugees, elementary children, homeless individuals or natural disaster victims. They are food bank clients, health fair attendees, middle schoolers or individuals with unmet dental needs. Even a community garden receives the volunteers’ time and attention.
The students all have their reasons for participating. Here are a few.
LIGHT president Lucero Rodriguez, a second-year dental student, volunteered as a mentor and leader while majoring in biomedical sciences at Texas A&M University and knew she would continue in dental school.
“I was especially interested in serving the community in a way that was outside our dental realm,” she says.
Her June 2019 initiative was to organize a group of eight LIGHT volunteers to We Over Me Farm at Paul Quinn College in Dallas, which uses the school’s old football field to address the food desert in the vicinity. Rodriguez and her fellow volunteers disassembled and moved three large rectangular compost beds, put up tomato fencing and prepared two garden rows with stakes and freshly raked soil for future planting.
“What I enjoyed most about the event was getting to hear about the history of Paul Quinn and the community’s struggle to get a grocery chain to come to their area,” she says. “Aside from providing manual labor to help their farm, we were truly learning about the community around us and getting outside of our dental school bubble.”
“Mixing students of different years will get people talking, sharing ideas and adding mentorship.” — Lucero Rodriguez
Over this academic year she intends to enrich an already significant facet of the LIGHT organization: community.
“We are bringing in dental students with dental hygiene students, working to create community within the school and also increasing relationships with the community outside,” Rodriguez says, “building those relationships through every interaction.
“Like the new curriculum, we’re going from a leadership structure organized around class years to a vertical integration, randomly allocating LIGHT members to four ‘houses’ created to integrate students across class years. Mixing students of different years will get people talking, sharing ideas and adding mentorship as well.”
Third-year dental student Richard Rodriguez jumped in to service activities with both feet after arriving on campus two years ago. He knew of Henry through his older sister Madeline, now a graduate of the San Antonio dental school, who had been Henry’s classmate in the Dallas dental school’s Summer Predental Enrichment Program. Henry’s kindness made a positive impact from the beginning.
“He reached out with positivity constantly in my difficult first year,” Rodriguez says. “I ask my friends to participate in stuff over social media, so he knew I’d be interested in this organization. Twain is inspiring; that’s why I chose to participate.”
Rodriguez planned LIGHT’s first volunteer effort in 2018 with Hunger Busters, an organization that assembles sandwiches to ensure underserved schoolchildren in Dallas have a meal after school. This year he hopes to help refugees set up apartments. These types of non-clinical activities, he says, allow first- and second-year students to participate and for everyone to branch out.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in the stress of school and lose perspective. Small, simple acts of kindness go such a long way. I love positivity and giving back to the community in ways that aren’t dental related,” he says.
“I love positivity and giving back to the community in ways that aren’t dental related.” — Richard Rodriguez
The organization uplifts members through inspirational quotes and messages, such as the end-of-semester encouragement from Henry “to keep our heads up for finals,” Rodriguez says.
“We constantly communicate by group message. It’s nice to have that community, even though we don’t see each other all the time or are at different points in our career.”
Dr. Avanika Grover ’19, founding member and one of two LIGHT leaders for her class over the 2018-2019 academic year, says students lean on their friends and family to help them during their dental school journey.
“This organization gives us the opportunity to express our gratitude to the community that gave us so much,” says Grover, whose parents encouraged her to give back from an early age.
In high school, she tutored middle schoolers who failed the state’s standardized math and science tests. In dental school, her most impactful experiences were those spent volunteering with other LIGHT members at Dallas Life for the homeless.
“We played with kids and talked with teens, occasionally worked in the kitchen and served lunch to the homeless on the weekends,” she says. “I had not worked with this type of shelter before, and it truly changed my perspective and demonstrated the impact we can make with just a few hours of our time.”
She has promised her father, an active community volunteer and leader in Plano, Texas, that she will continue to volunteer once a month.
“Volunteering helps keep you connected to the people around you.” — Dr. Avanika Grover
Connections run particularly deep for LIGHT participants, who have absorbed positive energy and inspiration from their group’s founder.
Henry will tell you, however, that it is very much a team effort. The quality of the college’s student body and its talented leaders creates significant potential to positively impact others, he says. He points out that he never takes for granted the support that made LIGHT possible.
“The two biggest lessons I’ve learned from starting the organization are that you can’t accomplish a dream all by yourself, and while strong people trust in themselves, the strongest have reliable friends and family, too,” he says.
“We are all called upon to be a light in someone’s life.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2019 Texas A&M Dentistry magazine.