Enlisting Volunteers to Give the Gift of a Smile

By: Julie Shoop

The Central Arizona Dental Society recruits dental professionals to put their skill with a drill to good use providing free services to community residents who might not otherwise get care. Its annual "Mission of Mercy" event benefits volunteers too: They build their sense of community and make valuable connections.

The scene outside the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in mid-December was what you might expect to find before a big-name concert or Final Four game. But the hundreds of people camped outside the Phoenix arena over two nights were there for a different reason.

A dental checkup.

Such is the level of local enthusiasm generated by the Central Arizona Dental Society (CADS) Dental Mission of Mercy, an annual event where dentists, hygienists, lab technicians, and other dentistry professionals volunteer their time and skill to treat patients who otherwise can't afford dental care. Treatments range from ordinary cleanings to root canals to placement of dentures.

"It's amazing to have someone who came in without any front dentition walk out with a smile," says Kevin Earle, executive director of the Arizona Dental Association (ADA) and CADS, one of three regional affiliates of the state organization. "I had one young lady, she was just walking around proud as anything. She got new front teeth for Christmas."

The event, the winner of a Summit Award in the 2013 ASAE Power of A Awards competition, launched in 2012. In its second year, CADS reports, more than 1,500 volunteers treated more than 2,000 patients over two days. They provided some 13,000 procedures valued at $1.42 million.

Arizona has substantially higher rates of dental disease than other states. Twenty-one percent of adults in the state and 31 percent of children have never had a dental checkup, according to CADS data. A major factor is a widespread lack of insurance among low-income residents— a problem made worse when emergency dental care for adults was dropped from Medicaid coverage in a round of state budget cuts. An effort to get lawmakers to reinstate those benefits as part of the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act is currently a major advocacy goal for ADA, Earle says.

With patients turning to emergency rooms for dental treatment when a problem can no longer be ignored, "we have a misuse of healthcare resources," he says. "We believe state dollars would be far better spent on making certain that there is a benefit for adults."

In the meantime, the Mission of Mercy event provides a short-term remedy. And the patients aren't the only beneficiaries, Earle says.

"One of our goals was to draw out those members that we typically don't see come out for association activities. It has caused them to get more involved and get to know one another better," he says. "Dental practice tends to be isolating."

The event helps volunteers make connections with their colleagues to develop referrals and share professional knowledge.

The volunteers "love it. It's the best feeling you can ever have. The patients are so appreciative," Earle says. As for the young woman who left with four restored front teeth: "It was like you had just given her a pot of gold."

Julie Shoop is VP/editor-in-chief of Associations Now in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "The Gift of a Smile."]

Julie Shoop

Julie Shoop

Julie Shoop is editor-in-chief of Associations Now in Washington, DC.