A dental tribute to veterans is a simple way to say thanks
By Vicki L. Munday, RDH
Have you ever been so moved by an injustice that you could not stand by and not get involved? In September 2012, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the "Stand Down for Veterans" in Seattle. The dental portion of the Stand Down event involved performing oral cancer screenings and referring those needing urgent dental care out to the Medical Teams International van.
About two hours into the event, I was asked to do the oral cancer screenings in the area set aside for the female veterans. I listened to their heartbreaking stories of job loss and then becoming homeless. I had itchy fingers (I wanted to be cleaning their teeth) and felt so helpless just doing oral cancer screenings. Many of the veterans just wanted their teeth cleaned.
I left the Stand Down event knowing that the dental community could do more, and should do more, for our veterans in need. These amazing people served our country. They served without question, and did so with a "Yes, sir!" and a salute. They gave so that we can enjoy all of the freedoms that come with being American citizens. Providing a day of free dental care seemed like such a small token of thanks.
I began thinking about how I could put together a day of free dental care for underserved and homeless veterans. As I pondered the when, where, and how, it dawned on me that, if the veterans had unmet dental needs, then it was also a good bet that the rest of their immediate families did as well. So now I was not only planning a day of free care for veterans, but one that also included their family members.
My initial thought was that I would need a large dental clinic where we could get the biggest bang for the buck and see the largest number of patients all at the same time. I also needed a name for my idea, so Smiles for Veterans was born. I started talking to friends and dental colleagues about Smiles for Veterans.
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As I gained moral support, I approached a large learning institution and pitched my idea to the "man in charge." While he was very supportive, he passed me along to the other executives. After some face time and many emails, the "suits" determined they could not see past "issues" that they would not disclose to me. So my request to use their large dental clinic was denied.
During this time frame, Smiles for Veterans gained momentum. My vision was not only to provide dental care, but also to give veterans and family members handmade quilts, warm hats, socks, and personal hygiene items to help them get through the winter. As I continued to work on all the details, such as a health history form, routing slips, and volunteers, I was still planning on the use of that large dental clinic, which was centrally located and on a bus line. When access to the clinic was denied several months into organizing and stockpiling donations, I was a bit stunned. I had a couple hours of frustration and anger, but I then channeled all that negativity into determination and found another large institution of learning that opened their arms and welcomed Smiles for Veterans. The dental hygiene clinic at Shoreline Community College in Shoreline, Wash., offered 24 chairs and two classrooms for Smiles for Veterans.
My condo became a storage area. A dentist friend offered the use of a spare room to store the quilts in a dry environment. The office for the Washington State Dental Hygienists' Association was also a dumping ground for donations from hygienists, corporations, and dentists. A member of my component belongs to a Red Hat group, and they donated 200 warm hats. The Binky Patrol members made 135 quilts. A county employee heard about Smiles for Veterans, put a box in her office, and collected 40 pairs of socks. I was given the leftovers from the 2013 Stand Down and Oral Cancer Walk. The outpouring of love for veterans and this project was wonderful.
At the 2013 Stand Down event, I met Maria, a fellow hygienist who had recently moved to Washington State. Her husband works with hotel supplies, and he had been transferred to Washington. Maria checked with her husband about a donation of personal hygiene items, thinking her husband's company might have damaged goods in the warehouse. She emailed me saying donations were available, as long as I could provide a 501(c)(3) number.
Through a network of friends, I met someone who works for a local community service organization. After some conversations and approval from her superiors, I was given permission to use their 501(c)(3) tax number.
So a large truck was rented and five pallets of damaged goods were retrieved from the warehouse. The agreement was that Smiles for Veterans had to take whatever was damaged. We sorted through the items, giving away what we could not use. This turned into a huge win-win for several area shelters.
The day of the event approached, and the logistics of transporting all of the supplies to Shoreline Community College proved not to be as difficult as I had thought it might be. Some amazing volunteers helped haul everything to the site. Many dental hygienists, spouses, and dental hygiene students from both Lake Washington Technical College and Shoreline Community College helped with the setup, sterilization, patient flow, and cleanup.
It truly takes a village to put on such an event. One of the hygienists brought three high-school girls with her to the event, and one of the dentists brought his children so they could be a part of giving back to these veterans who served our great country.
No community service project comes off without a glitch or two. We had issues with the couplings on the high-speed drills. Somehow we managed to pop a breaker on the sterilization equipment, but that was an easy fix.
All of the volunteers who were dentists or hygienists brought their own armamentarium. PDT donated dental hygiene instruments that were used and will be used again. Also, some of those instruments went with one of the dentist volunteers to a third-world country for a mission he was involved in. The local Procter & Gamble rep and a veteran donated a pizza lunch for all of the volunteers.
Day of Event
The veterans and their family members were greeted, and they filled out forms. The guests received thorough head-and-neck exams by the hygienists, a few necessary radiographs, and dental exams. After the determination was made as to what services were most urgent, the patient received a thorough cleaning, including anesthetic if needed. The dentists determined needed restorations and extractions.
After having their dental needs met, the veterans and family members were escorted back to the "goodie" room where they could pick out a quilt, hat, socks, and gather as many personal hygiene items as they wished. They were also asked to leave a note for the volunteers. We provided both notecards and a poster that could be written on.
The feedback was very positive from both the volunteers and the veterans.
The current status of Smiles for Veterans is that we are moving forward and looking at two locations for 2014 -- in King County and in Snohomish County. We have formed a board of directors, have written both mission and vision statements, and are purchasing the domain name Smiles for Veterans. There are grants to be applied for, donations to be requested, and volunteers to be signed up.
VICKI L. MUNDAY, RDH, is a 1992 graduate of Shoreline Community College. She is currently president of LVS2SMILE Dental Hygiene Services, where she represents several dental products under her business license. She is the founder of Smiles for Veterans, a nonprofit organization that provides free dental care to homeless and low-income veterans. The first annual Smiles for Veterans event was hosted November 11 at Shoreline Community College.
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