Michelle Gross (pictured right with resident Baby Love) and the Sharing Smiles team returned to the Dominican Republic in June. After two years since their last trip, the residents at Hogar Immanuel were excited to welcome them back. Get to know Michelle and learn why she and her team are so committed to Hogar Immanuel!
What does Sharing Smiles do?
Sharing Smiles is a non profit organization that provides free facial reconstructive surgery, pediatric dentistry, and pediatric rehabilitation services in Latin American countries. The organization gathers groups of professional volunteers including physical therapists, speech language pathologists, nutrition specialists, and pediatricians to send to their program countries. These professionals provide needed services to the children they visit and help improve their quality of life going forward.
Sharing Smiles team in our therapy room at Hogar Immanuel.
How did you get started volunteering with Mustard Seed Communities?
I joined Sharing Smiles in 2014 as their Program Director and have worked there ever since. The main roles of my job are to gather professional volunteer teams and set the organization’s strategic vision for the future in my program areas. When I first started at Sharing Smiles, we had just recently got connected with MSC through a board member who is also a professor of physical therapy at the University of Central Florida. This board member had done work with MSC in Jamaica and began working with me to start sending teams from Sharing Smiles down to Mustard Seed Communities’ home in the Dominican Republic, Hogar Immanuel. Ever since starting this connection with Mustard Seed in 2014 we have gone twice a year, every single year, with exception during the pandemic, and have loved forming connections with the children and providing them with the physical therapy they need.
What keeps you coming back to Hogar Immanuel year after year?
Everybody who is involved in these trips, from the Sharing Smiles volunteers, to the leadership of Mustard Seed, to the caregivers on the ground in the DR, has a huge heart and is so dedicated to improving the lives of others. Working with all of these dedicated, compassionate, and empathetic people while experiencing the joy of each child we meet makes it so easy to want to come back every year.
What is your favorite part of doing the work that you and your team do?
My favorite part of the work that we do while in the DR is that it is very hands-on. I work as an interpreter between the caregivers in the DR and the physical therapists and doctors I come with from the United States. While I am translating, I am able to be one on one with a therapist, caregiver, and the child we are caring for. I love seeing the impact that the conversation can have, from educating the caregiver on new techniques for physical therapy to the caregiver telling the therapist about the strengths and weaknesses of the child. I love how in these moments I am able to see the intersection of different cultures, backgrounds, and languages working together and witness the learning happening on both ends of the conversation.
Can you tell us about a resident or a moment with a resident that stands out to you?
When I started going to Hogar Immanuel in 2014 I met Baby Love. At that point Baby Love had just arrived at MSC and was really struggling with mobility. She couldn’t walk very well, fell down all the time, and was very weak. During our first visit, therapists were continually encouraging her to practice walking and balance but she still struggled a lot. After many more visits she improved so much. In the most recent visit, I was in awe of how high functioning she was. She was dancing and running around the whole time we were there bringing joy to everyone around her. I was truly amazed by how much growth I was able to witness in a few years.
How have you seen Mustard Seed grow and evolve since your first trip, especially in terms of care and therapy for the residents?
When Sharing Smiles first started going to the DR, Anne, the administrator, had just started. In the last 8 years she has transformed the home and her leadership has been truly amazing and life changing. Throughout my time there, I am continually impressed by the impact Anne has, not just in the Hogar Immanuel community but the surrounding community as well. Additionally, Maria, one of the main caregivers, has been there the whole time we have been going down to the DR and I am so impressed with how hard she has worked in improving the physical therapy program for residents in the last few years. I find that it’s not often that people stay at a job that's so physically demanding for so long, but Maria has worked extremely hard for many years and continually shows her dedication to caring for the residents. Overall, I believe that therapy has improved drastically in the years since Sharing Smiles started coming to the DR and this can especially be seen by the great trust placed in MSC by the local government as they continue to be given more and more children in need of homes and care.
Michelle working with a resident on therapy
Sharing Smiles volunteer Darcy with resident Irene
Mustard Seed is expanding to a second home in Santiago. This new home will have a clinic for the community which will be our first program in preventative care. What impact can you see this having in the Dominican Republic and in the communities we serve?
I along with the Sharing Smiles therapists are always saying that if we can start intervening earlier and get the correct treatment for the youngest residents then these children will never get to a place where they cannot move and have physical problems. I believe that this new project is a really exciting opportunity to provide necessary care for children in need and begin teaching them at an early age how to care for themselves as best as they can so that they do not get to a point where they are beyond what therapy and treatment can affect or address. These preventive care measures are essential to ending the need for extensive and difficult physical therapy and medical care for older children and adults in the future.