Tufts University program provides homeless veterans with advanced dental care
January 28, 2020
Service: ADA Foundation CEO Dr. Marcelo Araujo, Ph.D., right, presents an E. “Bud” Tarrson Dental School Student Community Leadership Awards check to (from left) Tufts University dental students Brent Mullen, Keith Nyugen and Dr. Rick Stevenson, ADA Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention chair. Mr. Mullen and Nyugen are the founders of Tufts University’s Service With A Smile program, which helps homeless veterans find dental homes.
— When Brent Mullen and Keith Nguyen — Tufts University dental students who had served in the Army, including combat tours in Iraq — began dental school in 2016 they volunteered at the New England Center and Home for Veterans, serving meals to resident veterans.
Two years later, the two students had combined their interest in serving veterans and the dental profession by creating the Service With A Smile program — providing oral health education sessions, distributing oral hygiene supplies, fundraising and providing oral health screenings to veterans.
For their work, Service With A Smile was among 10 programs from nine universities to receive funding this year through the ADA Foundation’s E. “Bud” Tarrson Dental School Student Community Leadership Awards.
“The Tarrson Award will allow Service With A Smile to offer enhanced dental benefits to veterans,” said Mr. Mullen, program cofounder and primary student volunteer. “Our program aims to allow veterans to retain more of their natural teeth instead of relying on extractions and dentures.”
The funds, he added, will also allow volunteers to give meal vouchers to veterans who miss dinner at the shelter when they are scheduled for an evening appointment slot at Tufts.
Service With A Smile seeks to address the need to have more dental services available for veterans experiencing homelessness, according to the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. It strives to build friendship, dental access and education between Tufts University dental students, faculty members and the veterans temporarily and permanently residing at the New England Center and Home for Veterans in downtown Boston.
According to Tufts, the veterans center, on average house 230 veterans each night, a majority of whom are ineligible for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs dental benefits.
To fill this gap, Service With A Smile student volunteers and faculty mentors visit the center twice a month to provide oral health screenings. Its ultimate purpose is to connect the veterans to a dental home and provide needed dental services in order to reduce barriers for homeless rehabilitation.
“The ADA Foundation is proud to support oral health volunteer community service projects organized by dental students," said Dr. Marcelo Araujo, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the ADA Foundation. "These programs vary in mission focusing on the most underserved in their community including pregnant mothers, children, seniors, veterans and LGBT patients.”
Tufts and the other recipients each received about $11,400 as part of the Tarrson leadership awards. The other recipients include:
• University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, Give Kids A Smile.
• A.T. Still University of Health Sciences, Dentures for Veterans.
• Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry, Meharry Oral Health Day.
• Harvard University School of Dental Medicine, American Student Dental Association Community Involvement.
• University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry, Detroit Mercy Outreach and Community Service/Malta Free Dental Clinic.
• Oregon Health and Science University School of Dentistry, Student Patient Assistance Program.
• New York University College of Dentistry, Determining and Improving Access to Pediatric Dental Care for Children of Vulnerable Pregnant Women.
The University of North Carolina received funding for two student-led programs: Vidas de Esperanza Clinic is a clinic established by third-year students providing preventive, comprehensive and urgent care to underserved patients; and Equality Clinic, a student-run clinic that has partnered with a local LGBT center to help volunteers better understand specific needs of LGBT patients, such as pronoun usage, LGBT health and mental health training.
“The ADAF commends all dental student volunteer efforts and believes better oral health begins one mouth at a time,” Dr. Araujo said.
At Tufts, after a veteran completes a screening through Service With A Smile, the veteran is given a form that explains their oral health screening results, details treatment urgency and offers a referral for a potential dental home.
As of Jan. 28, Service With A Smile has had 11 screening sessions and has connected over 30 veterans to a dental home, such as the dental school. This includes
a Navy veteran whose luggage, which contained his upper complete denture and lower partial denture, had been stolen at a bus stop. The veteran was forced to go without any dentures for four years. The veteran is currently in the process of having a complete upper denture and lower removable denture made.
“Service With A Smile is very important to Keith and I because it is more than connecting veterans to dental care,” Mr. Mullen said. “It is a celebration of life. This program honors friends of Keith and I that gave their life in the Iraq War and lost their lives after returning home from [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Their legacy lives on as we work together to help our fellow veterans.”