Get to know: Richard ’73 and Penny ’66 Persiani, making a world of difference

How they met

Richard and Penny Persiani met the way a couple might meet in a romantic comedy.

The two did not know each other, but each were teaching part-time at Detroit Mercy Dental when they got into an elevator together. The elevator stopped between floors and maintenance had to come and get the elevator operating again.

When they were freed from the elevator, they attended a faculty function where they got to know one another. Afterward, they went to dinner. Now, more than 40 years later, they still laugh when they share the story.

Penny has a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and nutrition, and speech pathology along with a master’s degree in hygiene. She taught part-time at the dental school for many years.

As a dentist, Richard specializes in working with children who have developmental and birth defects because of disease or accidents. He has retired from his practice and remains a part-time associate professor at the dental school.

What are clefts?

A cleft lip or palate is a gap in the mouth that doesn’t close in early stages of pregnancy. Although exact causes are not fully understood, genetics, poor nutrition, even harmful environmental substances may affect the healthy development of a baby.

Worldwide, 1 in 750 children— that’s one child every three minutes — is born with a cleft lip or palate. Clefts can cause eating problems which can lead to malnutrition or starvation, recurring ear infections leading to possible hearing loss, dental development and affect speech and language development.

When Richard and Penny Persiani heard a group of Detroit Mercy Dental students were raising money for a trip to Central America to help Guatemalans who don’t have access to dental care, they knew they had to contribute.

After all, Richard has been making trips like this for more than 20 years and he knows the importance of the work that must be done in the remote corners of the world.

Penny and Richard Persiani
Penny and Richard Persiani

“We’re blessed to have been born in the United States,” Richard said. “Sometimes we don’t realize that. But then you go to a developing country and see what they have to deal with there and you realize.”

Since 1995, Richard, a dentist who is also an adjunct professor at Detroit Mercy Dental, has participated in more than 20 overseas trips through Operation Smile, an organization dedicated to helping children who suffer with cleft lips or palate or other facial disfigurations.

“A person might have a condition, such as diabetes or other illness, but it’s on the inside, so other people would never know it,” Richard said. “But this,” he points to his face, “is who you are and you can’t hide that.”

As important as the medical issues that come with cleft lips and palate can be—trouble eating, ear and other infections—there are societal issues that also must be addressed. In many parts of the world, children with these conditions face ridicule and can’t speak properly to defend themselves. They often don’t attend school and in some cultures are shunned by adults as well.

Operation Smile, which Richard calls “the gold standard for medical mission trips,” has helped more than 70,000 children since it was founded in 1982. Doctors from around the world volunteer their time and pay their own way to change a child’s life. In fact, Richard closes his practice during these three-week trips. They bring everything—from medicine to surgical equipment and their work begins almost the minute they land. They rent hospital space, sometimes having to remove birds and other animals that may have taken up residence in the under-used facilities, and create a surgical center that helps hundreds of children.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia March 2003 Rohanna Mertens Photographer
Phnom Penh, Cambodia March 2003 Rohanna Mertens Photographer

Families come from miles around, often on foot because even if mass transportation exists, it is often too costly for patients. While evaluating patients, the team of 40 volunteers hear stories about the patients and their communities, learning that residents of some remote villages pool their money to get children and their families to the Operation Smile site.

“I remember one child,” Richard said. “Her mother told me she had no friends because of her condition; the girl would never leave her house. It was heartbreaking.” Doctors operated, but there were complications. The girl would not stop bleeding. Richard sat with her, applying pressure on the surgery site for a nervous two and a half hours to get the bleeding to stop. When he returned to Cambodia the following year, the girl rushed to see Richard, talked about how much she liked school and introduced him to her new boyfriend.

Penny, who has accompanied her husband on these trips, said the ultimate payoff is after the surgery when you show the children themselves in the mirror: “They love the person they see,” she said.

It’s not only cleft palates and cleft lips the surgeons repair. They train local doctors to perform the short, relatively simple procedure, with the aim of helping change the way health care is offered in the region. They also address other medical conditions when they can.

But they can’t always help: “We can’t treat them all,” Richard said. “And when we have to tell parents that, it’s brutal. But we come back and try to treat them during the next mission.”

Why do they do this? It goes beyond the fact that it’s the right thing to do. “Thanks to University of Detroit Mercy, I have a skill set a lot of people don’t have and because of that we are able to help these kids.”

That’s why when the couple heard about the upcoming trip to Guatemala that Detroit Mercy Dental students are hoping to take, they donated to help make it happen. They know how life-changing work like this can be.

To support this mission trip to Guatemala, visit

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