With some help from the Benco Family Foundation (and two gift-minded celebrities last Christmas), Dr. Giles Willis Jr. has brought dental care back to where he grew up—after a 20-year wait.

LAST DECEMBER, singer and talk-show host Kelly Clarkson presented one of her annual “Christmas surprises” on NBC. This one brought Dr. Giles Willis Jr. $100,000 closer to establishing a much-needed dental clinic near his Arkansas hometown, which has been without one for two decades.

In front of a viewing audience of 4 million, Clarkson and actress Melissa McCarthy presenting the unsuspecting doctor (who had been invited onto the show with his wife, Kimberly, and 9-year-old daughter, Eden, to raise awareness for his project) with the news that he’d be receiving the six-figure gift, sponsored in part by home-goods retailer Wayfair.

Stamps is a town of just 1,300 people in rural southwest Arkansas, some 35 miles east of Texarkana; Dr. Willis grew up in nearby Lewisville. What brought him back after having established a successful career in Cary, North Carolina? A simple desire to help his neighbors. A member of the Incisal Edge 40 Under 40 in 2016, Dr. Willis earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and his dental degree at Howard University. Over the course of his career he has treated victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, families in Honduras and the homeless in North Carolina. He completed his master of public health degree at A.T. Still University of Health Sciences in 2015.

Fully kitted out: Dr. Giles Willis Jr. in one of his operatories with some of the equipment donated by the Benco Family Foundation

In 2019, his stepmother, Zella Willis, mentioned that the building he had visited with a toothache at age 8 was for sale. Dr. Willis, now 45, put in an offer that was accepted the same day. The space hadn’t been used as a dental practice in 20 years and required a major overhaul. “I was trying to figure out how to pay for all this stuff,” he recalls. “It’s so expensive.”

He got right to work, applying for a number of grants, one of which gave him a $30,000 head start. His dental-school classmates kicked in some funds as well, and the Benco Family Foundation, Benco Dental’s philanthropic arm, committed to help him outfit a second operatory with $20,000 worth of donated equipment.

“I’ve now finished all three operatories,” he says. The Clarkson gift was the crowning touch, enabling him to buy his last two cabinets and another dental chair, as well as “a dependable server to be fully digital with X-rays, pictures and records, and to purchase a digital iTero scanner.”

The self-effacing Dr. Willis says he’s just happy to help. “Once people knew I had bought the office, they were waiting in the hope that they would no longer have to drive 45 minutes each way to get dental care. That kept me true to my mission.

“I have a skill that a lot of people can’t do,” he reflects. “I can pull a tooth and make dentures. That’s my gift to help give back.”