Dr. Phillip Kemp sat in the back at a Halftime event, his arms crossed as he listened intently to the program. He wore an expression I’ve come to recognize, an expression that says, “Is this Halftime thing really for me?”

So a Halftime Coach asked him that day what was going through his mind. As a relatively young dentist, Phillip had a successful practice in a well-to-do Nashville suburb, but he was in no position to retire on his savings and start or join a nonprofit. He was wondering how a dentist gives back in a meaningful way. Besides, he thought, isn’t just caring for people’s teeth a pretty significant life? Great questions, and not so easy to answer. As it turned out, he didn’t have to leave his practice or move to a poor country.

His platform of dentistry became a powerful launching pad for serving others – for serving aspiring dentists and for serving the poor and broken-hearted.

“I feel like God’s called me to the mission field,

which is here in this office in Brentwood, Tennessee,” Phillip says.

Phillip says. Phillip’s quest to match his passions and gifts with the needs of others led to a creative program that others now want to replicate across the country and around the world.

Most Fridays, Phillip and his staff volunteer to treat patients who can’t afford care, usually women who are in nearby recovery programs such as the Hope Center or Mercy Ministries. Through neglect or abuse, these women often require significant cosmetic dental work as they rebuild their self-esteem and find their way back into society.

What makes his second-half calling unique and its impact more powerful, however, is that it’s more than just providing free dental care to the needy.

His impact has leverage because in the process he’s mentoring student dentists and modeling for them the idea that the most rewarding practice is bigger than tooth care and includes the deepest heart-needs of your patients. 

Phillip brings in a rotation of dental students from his alma mater who witness and assist on complex procedures they may never get a chance to see in their academic environment.

“I’ve always had a desire to mentor and teach young dentists and give back,” Phillip says. “This whole process has been a culmination of that dream.” It started with Phillip going back to his dental school and beginning a conversation with the dean about how he could serve. In short order the students were coming to Phillip’s office. His credibility has grown in the university, and now he’s in a position to grow the mentorship program across the Nashville area. As these students look over his shoulder and learn the latest procedures, they get to hear from his heart about why his life’s passion is to serve people. Phillip is able to lift their vision above simply building a practice that creates wealth to dream of a practice that transforms lives.

“In school, they’re taught it’s just the tooth: ‘Here it’s the tooth attached to this person. This is what you fix,’” Phillip says. “We take it from the whole heart aspect that the tooth is just a means … and that whole care really serves the heart of the patient. That’s when they start saying, ‘Oh wow! I can have this kind of impact with what we do on a daily basis.’” And the university benefits, too, says Phillip. “The dean sees it as something they can’t provide, and it’s a huge benefit to the students.”

On a more regional basis, Phillip hopes to start a training center and clinic that provides low- or no-cost services while teaching dental students, moving the program beyond his office so that it can operate more than just one day per week.

The program has also had a profound impact on Phillip’s staff. When it first started, Phillip paid his staff for their work each Friday and he volunteered his time. Before long, as they saw the impact they were having, his staff members began coming to him one by one, offering to give back their salaries for that day. Eventually, they just asked not to be paid, even though he’s more than willing to make that a cost of providing the service.

The patients, many of whom saw their mouths as a focal point of depression, often find the procedures life-changing. Phillip keeps the thank-you letters, sharing them with his staff, his wife and his four children. One note in particular has especially touched his heart. It came from a girl enrolled in a treatment program at Mercy Ministries. Her mouth looked like a jack-o-lantern’s. The teeth that remained, Phillip said, were “horrible.” And most of her oral problems weren’t from neglect, which meant she’d been living with them all her life.

“From the time she was young until we treated her, she was just berated unmercifully, even by people in her family and friends at school,” Phillip recounts. “She talked about how the work that was done on her smile not only restored her self-esteem, but her faith in men.”

When Phillip talks about the program offering “life, love and restoration,” he’s not just talking about restoring healthy teeth and smiles. “It’s restoration of lives,” he says. “This girl really communicated that.” Living a second half of significance always involves risk and sacrifice, but these stories re-affirm for Phillip that giving his time and talent, not to mention sacrificing a day’s pay, is easily worth the price. Indeed, Phillip and his wife Rhonda hardly see it as a sacrifice but as “the least” they can do.

Kemp 1“We just feel like, as a family, if we’re not doing this then we’re not serving God,” Phillip says. “Taking off a few Fridays to do this is just a drop in the bucket. I don’t feel like we do enough.” That’s why it’s so amazing to see how God is using it for something much, much bigger than Phillip ever envisioned. And as a result of his speaking engagements at dental conferences, dentists and universities are replicating this strategy in other communities.

“The legacy of where I think God is calling me to be is a lot more about my ability to impact the profession,” Phillip says. “It’s truly more about the practitioner than the people we practice on. It’s not the treatment we do, but it’s what we do with the treatment providers. I truly think and feel that we’re on the cusp of just this whole movement of educating and raising up people to give back. That is going to impact a tremendous amount of people in the next 20 years.”