Are Volunteers the Solution?


BY BARRY WALDMAN, DDS, MPH, PhD; STEVEN P. PERLMAN, DDS, MScD, DHL;  LYNN MA.  MISHA GAREY, DDS Why is it that we, who are living in an advanced country, are so dependent upon the volunteering effort of so many for an array of basic medical care for unbelievable numbers of poor and individuals with special needs?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that between September 2012 and September 2013 about 62.6 million people (25.4 percent) of the noninstitutionalized population (16 years and over) volunteered through, or for an organization at least once. The volunteer rate in 2013 was the lowest since these data were first collected in 2002. (Volunteers are defined as persons who did unpaid work, except for expenses, through or for an organization.)1


Women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than did men across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics. Overall, 22 percent of men and 28 percent of women volunteered during the 2012 to 2013 period.

  • By age: 35 to 44 year-olds were most likely to volunteer (31 percent). Volunteer rates were lowest among 20 to 24 year-olds (19 percent). For persons 45 years and over, the volunteer rate tapered off as age increased.
  • Major race and ethnicity groups: Whites volunteered at a higher rate (27 percent) than did blacks (19 percent), Asians (19 percent) and Hispanics (16 percent).
  • Married persons: volunteered at a higher rate (31 percent) in 2013 than did those who had never married (20 percent).
  • Parents with children under age 18: volunteered at a higher rate (33 percent) than persons without children (23 percent).
  • Individuals with higher levels of education: engaged in volunteer activities at higher rates than did those with limited educational experiences.
  • Among employed persons, 28 percent volunteered during the year, compared to 24 percent of unemployed persons.
  • Main organizations: the organizations for which the volunteer worked the most hours were most frequently religious (33 percent of all volunteers), followed by educational or youth service related (26 percent) and social or community service organizations (15 percent).1

While there may be differences in the proportion of individuals volunteering in the different demographic groups, the fact is, that greater numbers of individuals in each population group volunteered for a wide range of community services.


Remote Area Medical: Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps (RAM) is a Knoxville, Tennessee-based, non-profit, volunteer, airborne medical relief corps that provides free health care, dental care, eye care, veterinary services, and technical and educational assistance to people in remote areas of the United States, and around the world. RAM was founded in 1985 by Stan Brock. The group’s work was originally confined to developing countries, but later shifted towards the U.S. According to RAM, “…the organization has provided $33,079,038 worth of free health care to 357,368 patients with the help of 36,675 volunteers since its inception. Approximately two-thirds of this total is in the USA… local licensing requirements for doctors in many states prevent his group from bringing out-of-state doctors to areas where their help is needed. Tennessee is the only state that has an “Open Borders to Doctors” law on its books.3

“Special exemptions have enabled RAM to hold a few clinics outside the state of Tennessee. One of these — in Wise, Virginia — was the largest RAM clinic held to date… in 2008, this 3-day clinic had 1,584 volunteers who provided 5,475 treatments to 2,670 patients. The total value of care provided at this single clinic equaled $1,725,418. RAM is funded through donations and relies on volunteers from the community, as well as professionals including physicians, dentists, optometrists, nurses, pilots and veterinarians to provide care in poorer communities.” 3

Special Olympics: Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, providing year-round training and competitions to more than 4.2 million athletes in 200 countries. Special Olympics competitions are held every day, all around the world—including local, national and regional competitions, adding up to more than

70,000 events a year. These competitions include the Special Olympics World Games, which alternate between summer and winter games. Special Olympics World Summer and Winter Games alternate every two years. In 1962, Eunice Kennedy Shriver created a day camp for children with intellectual disabilities at her home in Potomac, Maryland. She started this camp because she was concerned about children with intellectual disabilities having nowhere to play and no one with whom to play. Camp Shriver became an annual event, and the Kennedy Foundation gave grants to universities, recreation departments and community centers to hold similar camps. The first International Special Olympics Summer Games were held in 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago. About 1,500 athletes from the U.S. and Canada took part in the one-day event. 4

  • Healthy Athletes: The more than 1.4 million free health examinations in more than 200 countries are a critical component of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program that offers health services and information to medically underserved athletes. In the process, Special Olympics has become the largest global public health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities. It all started with Special Smiles with concerns for the oral health of the athletes. Special Smiles, initiated in 1994, provides comprehensive oral health care information, including offering free dental screenings and instructions on correct brushing and flossing technique and oral hygiene to participating Special Olympics athletes. This also includes issuing preventative supplies like toothpaste, toothbrushes, flossing and fluoride varnish as well as offerings mouth-guards for athletes competing in contact sports. Athletes who require follow up dental services are referred to local dental schools, clinics and oral health professionals.
  • Healthy Athletes currently offers health screenings in seven areas: Fit Feet (podiatry),

FUNfitness (physical therapy), Health Promotion (better health and well-being), Healthy Hearing (audiology), MedFest (sports physical exam), Opening Eyes (vision) and Special

Smiles (dentistry). Screenings educate athletes on healthy and healthy choices and also identify problems that may need additional follow-up. 4

Volunteers and supporters are an integral part of Special Olympics—and millions of people around the world are committed to its programs. Some are sponsors or donors. Many others are family members, coaches, event volunteers and fans.

Note: These two health programs have a critical factor in common with the thousands of other health and social efforts — they are dependent upon the work of millions of men and women of all ages who volunteer “to make a difference.”


To even question the idea of “volunteering” runs counter to the basic concept of human relations – helping those in need. It is not our intention to question the motivation of the millions in our country (and the untold number throughout the world) who spend uncountable hours and finances to serve as unpaid volunteers in fire departments, feeding the poor, aiding the infirmed and serving in an infinite number of other community activities that make human beings “human.” Rather it is to raise the question, “Why is it that we, who are living in an advanced country, are so dependent upon the volunteering effort of so many for an array of basic medical care for unbelievable numbers of poor and individuals with special needs?” Yes, there are a host of federal, state and local government programs that make an effort to meet these needs, but somehow so many fall between the proverbial cracks. While we thank and bless the efforts of the millions of volunteers, should we not ask the question, “Why not government sponsored comprehensive programs for the poor and individuals with special needs that would be in cooperation with volunteers who will make a difference?”


Barry Waldman, DDS, MPH, PhD – Distinguished Teaching Professor, Department of General Dentistry at Stony Brook University, NY;

Steven P. Perlman, DDS, MScD, DHL (Hon) – Global Clinical Director, Special Olympics, Special Smiles and Clinical Professor of Pediatric Dentistry, The Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine, Private pediatric dentistry practice

Lynn MA. Misha Garey, DDS is Director of Dental Services at the Orange Grove Center



  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. New Release. Volunteering in the United States – 2013. Web site: Accessed November 14, 2014.
  2. USC San Diego. Community Service: Top 10 Reasons to Volunteer Web site: Accessed November 14, 2014.
  3. Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corp. Web site: Accessed November 12, 2014.
  4. Special Olympic internal reports and Special Olympics.2012 Reach Report. Web site: Accessed November 14, 2014.