Trip of Many Missions

On her left wrist, Hannah Ciullo carries a daily reminder of courage. The ocean blue bracelet she wears was made by a little girl she treated on the school’s annual mission trip to the Dominican Republic.

“Sometimes I get feelings like, ‘I can't do this. This is too hard for me. This is too complex,’” she said. “I look at this bracelet, and I just remember, I can do it.”

The team of volunteers
The team of volunteers including the trip's organizer Herminio Perez (middle row, last on right), Hannah Ciullo '25 (front row, last on right), Sonika Shah '18 (middle row, first from left), and Jalen Bonitto '25 (back row, second from left). 

Ciullo went to La Romana, Dominican Republic, as part of a program run by Rutgers School of Dental Medicine’s (RSDM) in collaboration with World of Smiles. Surrounded by sugarcane fields, villagers of La Romana have sugar-heavy diets with limited oral health care. “There are poor areas in the United States, but you don't see the level of poverty you see there,” said the trip’s organizer Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, Diversity, and Inclusion Herminio Perez. He recounted how people often live in dirt-floor houses and wear soleless shoes. “Even though they need things, they are grateful that you are there and share with you the little that they have.” Like that bracelet.

The dental clinic is in a local school, Fundación Mir, and operates year-round with volunteer doctors from various schools. While they mostly treat children, parents and school staff frequent the clinic too. Perez organized RSDM’s first trip in 2017 with four students and a few attendings. That year, the group treated 86 patients in four days. Seven years later, the number of students doubled, so did patient numbers. The team performed 346 dental procedures ranging from extractions to restorations to cleanings. Over the years, the program’s impact began to manifest itself visually. “Seven years ago, we saw rampant decay all over the place,” said Perez. With the implementation of preventative measures, such as silver diamine fluoride treatment to reduce cavities, “the difference is huge.”

Perez’s career began with caring for people in the South Bronx, who experience barriers to access. This led him to devote his skills to increasing access. “I found my mission as a clinician,” he said. He brings this calling to RSDM through the annual trip. Besides making a positive change in the community, he believes the mission emphasizes the humanistic aspect of dentistry that can sometimes be forgotten during the day-to-day of the job and transforms participants.

Sonika Shah ’18, a three-time attendee of the program, can attest to that. Shah always had an affinity for outreach work because her mother, who grew up in India, went to a free dental clinic for most of her childhood. “That's always kind of been ingrained in me,” she said. “[The trip] is the most gratifying work I'm able to do.”

The first time she went on the mission trip was in its inaugural year as a student. She was contemplating going into pediatric dentistry. “I remember coming back from the trip being like I want to do it.” It also helped her expand her skills and connect with other dentists. After becoming a pediatric dentist, she returned twice as an attending. One of her patients from last year came up and hugged her this year. “Last year, he cried and screamed; this time he came in as happy as a clam,” she said. The patient's mother expressed her gratitude. “It's really heartwarming. I like going back to keep the consistency for kids because a big part of pediatrics is not just doing the work but building a relationship.”

Similarly, Jalen Bonitto of the Class of 2025, found his calling as a pediatric dentist through this experience. Bonitto heard about the mission during his interview day when applying. “It's been on my mind since then,” he said. Going to the Dominican Republic, he was partly excited and partly anxious because of the volume of the patients they’d treat. “My biggest fear as a dental student is that I'll be really slow with my time, but this program gave me a lot of confidence in myself and my abilities,” he said. He discovered a knack for treating kids. Because none cried during his treatments, he earned the nickname child whisperer. “It's really rewarding to get a child to open up, be willing, and be comfortable to receive dental treatment without fear,” he said. This, and other volunteer opportunities at the school, he said reminds him why he set out to do dentistry: helping people.

Being able to serve the community was also what inspired Ciullo to become a dentist. She did RSDM’s Gateway to Dentistry program for college students and heard about this mission trip. She awaited the email in her third year. “It was career-changing,” she said. She had a chance to learn from attendings who supported students during the clinic, taught them new techniques, and debriefed after each day. “I learned a lot about my own skills in dentistry. It taught me to give myself a little bit more grace because I'm critical about myself, my work, and my timing,” said Ciullo, who is applying to general practice residency programs. A student doctor, she felt she could give back to the community. The attendings, however, gave back to the community, to the student doctors, and also to their profession.

“As professionals, we are ethically obligated to share our knowledge, resources, and skills with others,” she said. “Leaving that trip, I just couldn't wait to go back one day and do the same.”