Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas surprise on NBC this week brings Dr. Giles Willis Jr. $100,000 closer to creating a much-needed dental clinic for his hometown Arkansas neighbors who have been lacking one for 20 years.
In front of an audience of 4 million NBC viewers, Grammy-award winning entertainer Clarkson and her real-life neighbor, actress Melissa McCarthy, surprised the dentist with a donation to support his dream of giving back.
How did Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas surprise on NBC support Incisal Edge 40 Under 40 alumni Dr. Giles Willis Jr.’s plan to give back in his hometown?
During Kelly Clarkson’s “When Christmas Comes Around” televised special, she invited Dr. Willis, his wife Kimberly and 9-year-old daughter Eden to share their story and create awareness for the humanitarian project. Then they presented the unsuspecting dentist with a $100,000 donation sponsored by online home store Wayfair. Their goal: Help Dr. Willis open the doors of a dental clinic in Stamps, Arkansas, by the new year.
“Everytime I come back home, people always say ‘Did you bring your tools today?’ I just decided that if this many people keep asking me if I can help them, I need to do something to help them.”Giles Willis, Jr., DDS, MPH, on returning home to rural Arkansas to open a dental clinic where there had been none for 20 years.
Dr. Giles Willis Jr. says a painful childhood experience ‘catapulted’ him toward becoming a dentist
As a boy raised five miles from Stamps in nearby Lewisville, Willis’ access to dental care was limited by distance and expense. A toothache caused agonizing pain for young Willis.
“I tried to pull the tooth myself.”Dr. Giles Willis Jr. on the painful childhood toothache that ‘catapulted’ him toward becoming a dentist
Relief came for the 8-year-old only after traveling with his mom to the one dental office in the county. But, having two teeth extracted by a near-stranger doesn’t fall in the category of happy childhood memories.
Dr. Willis explained that the entire experience “catapulted” him toward dentistry. His determination that no child should have to go through the pain he did, and the example set by his “hardworking” parents Giles Willis Sr. and Tijuana Wilbon inspired him along his career path.
“They are very hardworking and never complained. They just found a way to make it happen… they didn’t go to college. I was the anomaly.”
After completing his undergraduate studies at University of Arkansas – Pine Bluff in 1999, Willis moved 1,000-plus miles from home to achieve that goal and earn a dental degree at Howard University in Washington D.C. Though he wasn’t able to return to Arkansas at that time, Dr. Willis found other ways he could give back to the community. As a new dentist, his worked in public health in a an area of rural North Carolina reminiscent of his hometown.
He has treated Hurricane Katrina victims in Louisiana; families living in remote jungle areas of Honduras; and homeless people and those recently out of drug rehab in North Carolina.
“I think it’s just something in you to want to help.”Dr. Giles Willis Jr. on his mission to help others through his gift of dental skills
While building a successful independent dental practice in Cary, N.C. over a 15 year period, Dr. Willis, who was recognized among America’s best young dentists in 2016 by Incisal Edge magazine, never lost sight of his plan to ultimately create a public health clinic in Arkansas. Realizing that expertise in that area, including grant writing, would be vital, he pursued a Master of Public Health degree with a dental emphasis, which he completed in 2015.
How Lafayette County Dental Clinic will bring dental care to a community that had none for 20 years
In 2019, when Dr. Willis’ mom mentioned that the same dental office he had visited with the agonizing toothache at age 8 was available for sale, he put in an offer to buy it that was accepted the same day. The 1,600 square foot building at 506 Thomas Street in Stamps has not been in use as a dental office for 20 years, and requires major overhaul to prepare it for providing general dental services to patients. He’s been dedicating all of his efforts to every task, from outfitting it with dental equipment and creating handicapped accessibility to repairing a roof collapsed by a falling tree.
“I was trying to figure out how I was going to pay for all this stuff. It’s so expensive.”Giles Willis, Jr., DDS, MPH, on returning home to rural Arkansas to open a dental clinic where there had been none for 20 years.
Immediately, Dr. Willis put his new skills to work, applying for several grants. He said he feels fortunate to have been selected as the 2021 fall recipient of the Delta Dental Arkansas Foundation Community Grant, dedicated to help furnish equipment for the only charitable dental clinic available to serve the residents of Lafayette County.
While the $30,000 grant gave him a solid start, allowing him to equip one dental operatory, the expenses are numerous. Dr. Willis and his wife Kimberly have dedicated personal resources, and he was overwhelmed by the support received from his dental classmates during a small fundraising outreach. Most recently, the Benco Family Foundation, Benco Dental’s philanthropic organization, committed to help Dr. Willis outfit a second operatory, with an equipment donation valued at $20,000.
Dr. Willis still has a lot to accomplish to prepare the clinic for its opening in the coming weeks.
What keeps Dr. Giles Willis, Jr. steadfast in his mission to provide dental care to the small, rural community in Arkansas that was his childhood home?
“I stay true to my mission, because once people knew that I bought the office, they were waiting in hopes that they’d have a dentist coming back and won’t have to drive 45 minutes each way to get dental care. That kept me true to my mission – that the community really needed it,” said Dr. Willis.
“I have a skill that a lot of people can’t do. I can pull a tooth and make dentures for people. I feel like that is my gift to help give back.”Giles Willis, Jr., DDS, MPH, on returning home to rural Arkansas to open a dental clinic where there had been none for 20 years.
Want to help Dr. Giles Willis, Jr. help others?
Monetary donations, or support in the form of supplies, dental equipment, dental instruments are the primary focus, for Lafayette County Dental Clinic, but Dr. Willis said any resources or aid will help.
To donate: Visit lafayettedental.org
Follow Dr. Willis’ journey after Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas surprise to see how he continues to improve access to oral health care in Lafayette County and surrounding areas. Check back here in the coming months to learn about his progress at the practice, his plans to mentor others in the community, and an idea to help provide jobs and skills for those with an interest in the dental profession.
When neighbors in small towns set their mind to helping, anything is possible.