Area students, teachers help provide free dental care in Southwest VA

Several local residents were among the 450 dental volunteers – including 125 students – at the Virginia Dental Health Foundation’s Mission of Mercy project in Wise County, Va., last month.

“When you go and you see these people, they get tears in their eyes,” said Margaret Ann Snellings, a Chesterfield Technical Center graduate who is now studying dental hygiene at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It’s amazing.”

The Mission of Mercy projects were started in 2000 and by the end of 2010 will have seen more than 39,000 patients and provided more than $21 million in free services at 49 missions, according to information provided to Snellings by the Virginia Dental Association.

The projects began in response to the lack of access to care and the resulting poor oral health of thousands of poor Virginians, according to the VDHF’s website.

“The Mission of Mercy projects are conducted in identified, underserved areas of the state where there are not enough dental practitioners to adequately address the oral health needs of the community,” the site says. “Any individual who is able to show up on site is considered eligible. Our intentions are not to judge, but rather to serve.”

At the July Mission of Mercy project in Wise County, Va., 1,406 patients, including 76 children, were seen and organizers estimate that about $1.4 million in free treatment was provided, Snellings said. A total of 4,122 teeth were extracted and 2,269 fillings, 317 cleanings and 51 root canals were done, she said. Also, 25 sets of dentures and eight partial dentures were fabricated, she said.

“I had a patient who hadn’t had a cleaning in 38 years,” she said. The tartar had built up so much that the patient’s lower teeth weren’t visible, she said.

The Mission of Mercy project in Wise County, which also includes chiropractors and a vision center, is the largest such health fair in the nation, Snellings said.

Snellings had heard of the projects in the past, but she wasn’t able to participate until this year.

“We [students in VCU’s dental program] all fight for the positions,” she said. “We get really excited about it. … It’s just so much experience, you have no idea, as a student.”

As well as local students at VCU, teachers and students from the Chesterfield Technical Center were at the Wise County project, she said.

Melinda Gullotti, who teaches dental occupations along with Regena Spurlock at the Chesterfield Technical Center, said the center got involved in Mission of Mercy projects about six years ago. The center teamed up with Sonja Lauren, author of The Covered Smile, whose daughter was a student at the technical center, to go to Southwest Virginia, Gullotti said.

“The students love it,” she said. Every summer, a group of 10 to 15 students make the trip, she said, and they are able to assist dentists in a variety of procedures, including fillings and extractions.

The trip is really an eye-opening experience for students, she said, as a lot of the cases they see at the Mission of Mercy projects are unlike anything they’d see in Chesterfield County.

“They get to see 15- or 16-year-old girls who are getting their front teeth pulled out due to decay,” she said. The students really see how fortunate they are, she said.

The biggest impact comes before each Mission of Mercy project starts, she said. The projects take place from Friday to Sunday, she said, but on Thursday, “you see patients lined up for half a mile and in tents.” Then, when the sun comes up Friday, she said, volunteers can see the line stretch out for a mile or more, rain or shine.

Snellings said it was “heartwarming” to see teachers and other former students from CTC at the projects. Gullotti, who inspired her to go into dentistry, is “like a member of my family,” she said.

“It’s really cool to see former students from CTC,” Gullotti said. Ashleigh Zinski, who is also in dental hygiene school at VCU, went on her first Mission of Mercy in high school and was at this year’s project, Gullotti said.

Unfortunately, Snellings said, when money gets tight people often postpone trips to the dentist. But, she said, there are “so many links to the oral cavity and the overall health of the body,” and dental care is vital.


MOM Project

As an employee of VCU, I have also been involved in the MOM Project and am proud that we are a part of the solution to the pressing needs of our own people right here in Virginia. Many thanks to all those who give their time and hearts to this wonderful project!

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