Dental students give back through volunteering and public service
WILLMAR — Kids filled the waiting room Friday afternoon at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic. A steady parade of young patients kept 28 volunteers busy with dental exams and sealant treatments.
It was the third year in a row that the regional dental clinic participated in Give Kids a Smile, an annual American Dental Association event that brings free care to underserved children.
The 80 children who came for free exams Friday might otherwise have gone without dental care, said Renee Johnson, the clinic’s dental hygiene instructor.
“We’re able to do good things for them today,” she said.
But the benefits also went both ways.
“We know there are barriers to care,” said Katie Divine, a fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry who’s completing a rural rotation at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic and volunteered to spend the afternoon helping with Give Kids a Smile.
“It’s nice as a student to see that service philosophy and provide care for those in need,” she said. “It’s been something special for many people, whether you’re a student or not.”
Community service is a lesson that’s reinforced over and over at the School of Dentistry, especially at outreach training sites such as the Rice Regional Dental Clinic.
The five-year-old program is operated through a partnership between Rice Memorial Hospital and the University of Minnesota, and is believed to be the only hospital-based dental training site in the United States. Here, future dentists, dental hygienists and dental therapists build hands-on skills, working mainly with low-income clients, while experiencing dental care in a rural setting.
The four dental students who volunteered Friday for Give Kids a Smile were all completing their last day of a four-week clinical rotation in Willmar before returning to the Twin Cities campus, where they’ll graduate in May.
It was their final training experience at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic — and one last chance to give back.
“They really learn a lot when they’re out here,” Johnson said. “They really appreciate the education here and they want to be able to pay it back.”
One child hadn’t seen a dentist in eight years and made a 50-mile trip to participate in Give Kids a Smile, said fourth-year dental student Casey Chantelois.
“It really makes you want to help out. There isn’t a Rice Regional Dental Clinic everywhere,” he said.
Fostering this service mindset is one of the cornerstones in how the University of Minnesota prepares future dental professionals, said Dr. Paul Schulz, outreach director and mobile dental clinic director at the university’s School of Dentistry.
“Part of our school’s mission is service,” he said. “It’s about giving back to others.”
Besides a rural rotation in Willmar, Chantelois’s dental training has included a stint with the Indian Health Service in Red Lake. Divine volunteered last summer for the American Dental Association’s “Mission of Mercy” in Mankato, where people started lining up at dawn for access to dental care.
Both will be among more than 100 dental students volunteering today for Give Kids a Smile at the university’s Twin Cities campus.
“This is a special event where we’re able to give back in an even more unique way,” Schulz said. “We have tons of faculty that volunteer too. It’s truly a mentoring experience.”
Ultimately the goal is to meet community needs, said Wendy Foley, interim executive director of the Southern Minnesota Area Health Education, which coordinates career exploration and rural health professional training opportunities in 21 counties in southwestern Minnesota.
“They really feel that community connection when they come out here because they are very needed,” she said.
While the dental students are in Willmar, they do evidence-based community outreach projects that range from prenatal education to teaching kids the benefits of regular tooth-brushing, Foley said.
“We have relationships with everything from the YMCA to the day cares and senior nutrition sites,” she said. “We have outstanding students coming out. They teach about oral health. They teach about prevention.”
Indirectly they’re even helping build the future health care workforce, she said. “They share their passion for their work. These students hopefully might be sparking some interest in the children they speak to. We’re hoping to ignite that interest in the next generation.”