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University dental team uses their artistic sides to help kids get dental care

June 10, 2016

By Michelle Manchir

Cast of fundraisers: A selection of the AO Handmakers' work is on display with, from right, Dr. Lawrence Gettleman, University of Louisville lecturer and advisor to Alpha Omega; Sara Nelson, Alpha Omega member and third-year dental student; Holly Bradford, Alpha Omega president and third-year dental student; and Dr. Lee Mayer, Alpha Omega faculty co-advisor.
Louisville, Ky. — Some creative dental students and faculty at the University of Louisville are giving pediatric patients in their community a hand — in more ways than one.

Using alginate impression material, members of the Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity student chapter make plaster casts of hands, feet, faces and other body parts for donors annually at a local art festival. The proceeds for years have gone to the university's pediatric dentistry program, helping underserved kids get dental care. Last year, the group raised about $500.

Calling themselves the "AO Handmakers," the university fraternity started the unique fundraiser in 2002 under the leadership of Dr. Lawrence Gettleman, a lecturer and former professor of prosthodontics and biomaterials at the university's dental school.  

"My aunt was an artist, and I later discovered she had made plaster casts of my hands, feet and face when I was an infant," Dr. Gettleman said. "It is very personal and meaningful for people who buy these casts, and we have occasionally visited nursing homes and hospitals to make hand casts of those who are elderly or ill."

Some of the group's customers at the annual St. James Court Art Show in Louisville, who pay $40 or more for the casts, come back each year.

"We have many repeat customers who bring their kids or grandkids every year to get an impression of their hands and love to commemorate the changes year to year," said Holly Bradford, a dental student and president of the university's Alpha Omega chapter. "Many times they're ordered as gifts for Christmas, Mother's Day or Father's Day. We have so many people who tell us they look forward to getting their casts every year and love the detail and effort put into something they cherish so much."

Lend a hand: AO Handmakers created this cast of a hand holding a baseball.
The students perfect each piece with care. Customers make their orders at the group's booth during the art show, where students cover the patron's body part — usually hands or feet, but ears and pregnant bellies have been requested — with alginate. The artists/dental students then create the casts, pouring an orthodontic stone donated by Whip Mix Corp. into the impressions before recovering the plaster casts hours later.

"There is some artistic aptitude to create the casts.  If a good impression is made, then there is not much work that needs to be done after the casts are set," said Dr. Rachel Davis, who helped initiate the project in 2002 as a dental student and still helps oversee it.  "If there are voids or tears, then that's when we become artists and either add stone or carve it back to make it look natural."

The students finish off the sculptures by smoothing creases or bubbles, and later add bases and engrave them with a name and date. Most pieces are complete and ready to be picked up within a couple of months.

Each year, the team creates 20 or more casts, though weather can impact the number of patrons.  One advantage the team has, Dr. Davis said, is that Dr. Gettleman lives on the street where the art show is held, allowing the team to work in a secured space with all the necessary equipment at almost no cost.

"The students love fundraising and it helps underserved patients get dental care. It is a win-win for our dental students and the dental school," Dr. Davis said.

This year, the 60th Annual St. James Court Art Show is Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 in Louisville and is open to the public. The AO Handmakers will set up shop in the 1400 block of South Fourth Street on Oct 1-2.