Schweitzer Fellows impact children’s health in Greene County

Third-year dental students Mark Herring and Brandon Landreth transformed their passion for service and health into action as Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of North Carolina Albert Schweitzer Fellows during the 2014-2015 academic year.

As fellows, Herring and Landreth designed and implemented a project to deliver weekly lessons on health, wellness, and oral hygiene to elementary school students in Greene County, North Carolina.

Greene County has one of the densest Hispanic populations in North Carolina (15 percent overall, 25 percent among children), and Hispanic children are considered the demographic with the highest risk for cavities. With a large Latino population in an area with few health-care options, Herring and Landreth identified the children of Greene County as a prime target population.

The students worked in conjunction with Greene Dental Services, the dental clinic under the administration of the local community health center, to recruit kindergarten through fifth grade students for a dental screening and sealants program combined with an educational component.

Greene Dental Services established the Greene Access Program (GAP) in 2013 to provide screenings, sealants, and fluoride treatments to children in the local elementary schools. The fellows partnered with GAP to educate children on healthy lifestyle practices and oral hygiene, increase the number of children recruited for GAP’s school-based dental treatment program, and connect children to a local dental care home with Greene Dental Services and/or the ECU School of Dental Medicine.

Throughout the year, Herring and Landreth attended community events to publicize the school-based treatments and GAP for which parents could register their children. Events included Latino festivals, school open houses, and the North Carolina Sweet Potato Festival. They also distributed 1,000 toothbrushes at community events.

The fellows taught GAP lessons from September to April. Herring covered kindergarten and first grades; Landreth covered fourth and fifth grades; and both taught second and third grades. Due to the large Hispanic population in Greene County, lessons were taught in both English and Spanish. Over the year, they taught two dental lessons to 1,115 children.

“On my weekly visit to Greene County, I could appreciate more the opportunities to which this Schweitzer Fellowship has exposed me. Instead of going to a foreign country, just 20 miles down the road from me people are living in third-world conditions,” said Mark Herring.

To accomplish their goals, Landreth and Herring partnered with school nurses to schedule the lessons. Project mentors included School of Dental Medicine faculty members Dr. Christopher Cotterill and Dr. Ivelis Hernandez-Ramirez; Dr. Rob Doherty, dental director of Greene County Health Care; and Mrs. April Wiggins of Greene Dental Services.

Wiggins, a dental hygienist who started GAP two years ago, was eager to expand the program’s education component. The first year GAP was in action, it treated 63 children and place 55 sealants. Through the 2014-2015 school year, GAP treated 296 children and placed 487 sealants.

Herring said, “Greene County was the perfect place for my Schweitzer project, and I have my community partners to thank for that. April Wiggins and Dr. Rob Doherty of Greene Dental Services proved that despite the unfavorable odds stacked against Greene County, there are ways to overcome adversity and serve and empower the underserved.”

Brandon Landreth said, “When I first heard about the Schweitzer Fellowship, I knew that this would be a great way to not only serve my community but also grow as a leader in the process. As I look back now and reflect on my fellowship year, it is quite rewarding to know that I helped teach over 1,100 children proper oral hygiene behaviors and how to make nutrition choices that are healthy for the whole body and the oral cavity.”

Dr. Rob Doherty said, “If it was not for the preparation, energy, humor, and caring that Mark and Brandon put into their education sessions in Greene County Schools, we would barely have had half as many young students participate in our oral health program. We are so impressed with the job our ECU School of Dental Medicine Schweitzer Fellows did in educating and creating trust with these children and in making such a significant difference in the health of our community.”

Though the fellowship was a one-year experience, Herring, Landreth and other dental students will continue the partnership with Greene County GAP through the School of Dental Medicine’s DMD student organization. The Schweitzer Fellowship program will sustain funding for teaching supplies and toothbrushes.

The fellowship was created in memory of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who dedicated his to life to serving others after becoming aware of the desperate medical needs of Africans. The goal of the fellowship is to develop a pipeline of emerging medical professionals who enter the workforce with the tools and commitment necessary to address unmet health needs in the community.

With the completion of their project, Herring and Landreth are considered Schweitzer fellows for life, and both hope to continue working with underserved communities.

“Our goals aren’t to make those we serve dependent on our services but rather to enable those we serve to better care for themselves,” said Herring. “As a dentist, I want to empower my patients to take care of themselves and to share with them a reverence for life.”