Veterans Smiles Foundation and the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s Community Service Learning Center in Bolivia help veterans receive affordable dental procedures.
Mother Teresa famously said, “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”
There was certainly a lot of love beginning recently at the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine’s Community Service Learning Center in Bolivia, where 27 veterans received various types of dental procedures to help them regain bright smiles.
Navy veteran Michael Rilley was one of those veterans. Rilley had teeth and bone removed and left the event with a complete set of brand-new dentures.
“This is a great program,” he says. “Many veterans cannot afford quality dental care. This is one way that a veteran can pay an affordable amount and be provided with first-class dental care.”
Rilley had learned about the Smiles for Veterans Day program from his sister, also a veteran, who had benefitted from participation. “I would highly recommend this program to other veterans,” he says.
Dr. Craig Slotke, DDS, provided the dental services to Rilley at the event. Dr. Slotke is the full-time director of the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s (SoDM) Community Service Learning Center (CSLC) in Robinson County. Dr. Slotke was in the private practice of general dentistry for 32 years prior to joining the faculty of EU’s SoDM in 2014.
“The unique teaching model is a primary reason that I decided to accept an appointment to the faculty and leave private practice,” he says. “The model is a blend of didactic and clinical experience for the students and residents in a community setting.”
North Carolina is one of the most densely populated states with veterans of military service. Yet approximately 88,000 veterans residing in the Tarheel State are “at risk” from the perspective of an inability to afford and access necessary dental care, according to the Veteran Smiles Foundation. Part of the reason is that most veterans do not qualify for free dental services at the VA — only eight percent of veterans in the VA healthcare system meet the very stringent requirements to receive dental care.
Veteran Smiles Foundation (a 501(c)(3) public charity) was created to address that need. Partnering with the ECU School of Dental Medicine, NC Serves and state and county Veteran Service Officers, the foundation works to identify and refer to treatment as many at risk veterans as funds and capacity will allow. Dr. T. Rob Tempel, DDS, Major General, U.S. Army (retired), is the associate dean for extramural clinical practices at the ECU School of Dental Medicine. Dr Tempel explains that these services are provided through eight Community Service Learning Centers (CSLC) located in rural and under-resourced areas of North Carolina. There is also a large CSLC on the campus in Greenville, North Carolina. SoDM faculty and local volunteer dentists team with dental students and residents to deliver much needed dental work to local citizens while teaching the upcoming dentists.
“Five fourth-year dental students and two residents spend 27 weeks living in three different CSLC communities each for nine weeks,” Dr. Tempel says. “These student dentists and residents are trained while treating patients under the supervision of two full-time SoDM faculty dentists and several volunteer local dentists at each location.”
Each CSLC also has full-time dental hygienists, dental assistants, patient-care coordinators and a business manager.
Fourth-year dental student (D4) Ashley Collins was one of the students in the fifth week of her nine-week residency at the Bolivia CSLC. A native of Southern Pines, Collins was a fan of the experience.
“We get to travel across the state and meet people from different communities and lifestyles,” she says. “We also have the opportunity to train under a variety of different attendings (dentists) and be exposed to different ways of performing procedures.”
On the day of the event, Collins performed comprehensive dental exams and delivered and fitted a set of dentures.
Another student dentist, Maxie G. Jolley, III, (D4) reported that he enjoyed participating in the Smiles for Veterans event because his family had a 31-year history of military service in the U.S. Air Force. “This is my opportunity to give back to those who served our country,” Jolley says.
Dave McCracken, founder of Veterans Smiles Foundation, provided the history of the ECU Smiles for Veterans Day.
“The idea to devote a special day to give dental services to veterans arose from a pilot study in 2018 to 2020 conducted by the now-dissolved Smoky Mountains Outreach Foundation under a $20,000 grant,” McCracken says. “An additional $24,900 in grants from three donors allowed the program to continue beyond the pilot study. While initially focused on the western area of the state, the additional grant funding has allowed the program to expand into the other areas where CSLCs are located.”
An important partner in these events is Veterans Services of the Carolinas (VSX, a not-for-profit, faith-based organization). Assistant Director Timothy Driscoll explains the role of the organization: “We screen for financial need, perform a psycho-social assessment and then refer to another partner (NC Serves) for further referral to the dental provider. In this case, that is ECU’s Smiles for Veteran.”
Veterans Services of the Carolinas have been involved with dental care for veterans from the beginning. They operated a “Tooth Bus” in seven western North Carolina counties, serving veterans and other under-served citizens.
VSC became involved with the Smoky Mountain outreach program, and their partnership with ECU SoDM grew from there and continues to this day.
It is important to note that the dental care provided to veterans is not free. Each applicant for the program is screened for their financial ability and asked to sign an agreement to pay a certain percentage of the cost of their treatment. The explanation is that every veteran receiving services “pays it forward” by underwriting dental care provided to the next veteran. And so it goes — every veteran helps the next veteran receive the critically necessary dental care provided by the staff and volunteers of this program.