Smiles: dental students, faculty, staff and alums help those in need

Seven years without front teeth. Some haven’t visited a dentist – ever. Debilitating gum disease. Nerve-searing toothache.

For these reasons North Carolinians in need line up hours before dawn to receive treatment when the North Carolina Missions of Mercy (MOM) – a portable dental program that delivers free dental care to adults in need – comes to town.

In 2003 Steven Slott, a UNC School of Dentistry alumnus and longtime Burlington, N.C., dentist, learned of a MOM program run by the Virginia Dental Association. At the time, he managed a free clinic known as the Open Door Dental Clinic of Alamance County. A statewide MOM program in North Carolina seemed like a natural extension of Open Door.

Slott reached out to his alma mater, where extra hands could aid the effort. He partnered with ENNEAD, the school’s student volunteer organization, and gained support from dental faculty and staff. The North Carolina Dental Society eventually brought MOM under its wings.

Participation in MOM is one way Carolina addresses statewide access-to-care issues.

Through grants and individual donations, the program has provided more than 23,000 people with about $7 million in free care since 2003. Services at each two-day clinic include cleanings, fillings and extractions – sometimes root canals and replacements for missing teeth. As volunteers and funding increase, so does the scope of services.

“These people can’t get dental care anywhere else,” says Patrick Galloway, a fourth-year dental student who coordinates students for the clinics and has volunteered with MOM since he was an undergraduate. He always knew he wanted to be a dentist, but MOM has shown him what kind of dentist he wants to be.

“We should be joining health fields to heal people. Missions of Mercy has been a big stepping stone in growing my desire to help others,” he says.

In the 2009-10 academic year, 293 student volunteers from the dental school put almost 3,000 volunteer hours toward the effort. They joined faculty, staff and community dental professionals in treating more than 5,600 North Carolinians. MOM continues year round, and Galloway says only National Board exams can keep groups of students from giving up weekends for MOM.

Vice Dean Ken May, a frequent clinic worker, says, “Being a part of the Missions of Mercy clinics provides School of Dentistry students and faculty an opportunity to experience firsthand some of the unmet dental needs in North Carolina. More importantly, by participating in the provision of dental care to these citizens, our students and faculty help meet some of this need.”

Adapted from an article written by Chiara Austin, a journalism and mass communication major from Raleigh.

Published July 26, 2010.