Sonríe Clinic a success

By Spaine Stephens

Sonríe means “smile” in Spanish—and there were plenty to go around on May 16, when students, faculty, staff, residents and volunteers from ECU’s School of Dental Medicine gathered in Ross Hall to provide free dental care for a group of Hispanic farmworkers from eastern North Carolina.

The school teamed with local organization Access East to provide a variety of procedures for more than a dozen patients for the event, which was appropriately named the “Sonríe Clinic.”

“We provided comprehensive care. Most of them sat morning and afternoon to get as much treatment as possible,” said Dr. Acela Martinez Luna, assistant professor and division director of clinical implantology for the school and one of the event’s faculty organizers.

ECU School of Dental Medicine faculty member Dr. Acela Martinez Luna provides care to a patient during the school’s inaugural Sonríe Clinic on May 16. (Photo by Rhett Butler)

The event was a long time coming for members of the school’s chapter of the Hispanic Student Dental Association (HSDA), who had a vision for such a clinic years ago. In 2019, they were approached by representatives from Access East, a Greenville-based not-for-profit corporation that nurtures collaborations between health care organizations devoted to coordinating access to quality care for vulnerable populations including chronically ill, indigent, underinsured and uninsured patients.

Original plans for the clinic were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but when organizers received the go-ahead this year, they planned screening events to assess the needs of some of the farmworkers.

“The goal was to establish a program to provide care for Hispanic farmworkers in eastern North Carolina,” said Raul Garcia, ECU dental student and HSDA co-president. “One of the reasons we joined the ECU School of Dental Medicine is because of the mission and vision to provide health services for the underserved in North Carolina. We are able to, with the support of School of Dental Medicine, bring the vision and mission to life.”

While the documentation necessary to perform screenings and care was in the works by late 2020, HSDA members set out raising funds, applying for grants and helping create a special fund for future clinics. Once approved, the students set out to hold a screening at a farm location, taking equipment necessary to accurately assess each worker’s dental care needs. That “mini clinic” began the process of building rapport and trust between patients and student and faculty providers—which continued during the May 16 Sonríe Clinic.

The final piece of putting the event together was gathering volunteers—a task Garcia said came easy because of the mission-driven School of Dental Medicine family.

“An email was sent to the entire student body, faculty and staff,” he said. “Within two weeks, every clinical position had filled up. We have also sent out information to our sponsors, and the ECU pre-dental club, should anyone like to volunteer and support the mission.”

Forty-five students volunteered to help with the Sonríe Clinic, along with 12 faculty members, three residents and other school, community and Access East volunteers assisted with care, interpreting and administrative work. Pre-dental ECU students were also invited to participate.

“We provided cleanings, extractions and restorative treatments,” Garcia said. “It was a great experience to see our projects finally happening. Hard work of all of our HSDA members made this happen.”

ECU dental student and event organizer Raul Garcia welcomes patients to the school’s inaugural Sonríe Clinic, a partnership with Access East to provide dental care to local farmworkers. (Photo by Dr. Maggie Wilson)

Those students and other organizers wanted to connect Hispanic farmworkers and their families with care and resources—a challenge brought to light especially during the pandemic.

“Farmworkers, especially migrant farmworkers have experienced many hardships and obstacles obtaining health care during this time,” Garcia said. “Some of the challenges they have face include a language barrier, lack of transportation, no insurance, not understanding how to navigate the health care system and often having to share a living space with multiple people.”

Juan Allen, rural outreach and Affordable Care Act navigator for Access East, said the clinic was a monumental step in the right direction for the health care of farmworkers.

“But we have to understand that after the pandemic, these medical needs will still there,” he said. “The dental school did an amazing job providing those services to the farmworkers community during the pandemic. That showed level of commitment to assist this population.”

Allen said he hopes the partnership between the dental school and Access East will continue for years to come.

“Our mission in our Access East outreach program is to provide a voice to the ones without a voice in health issues,” he said, “and these events help us to achieve them. Partnerships are fundamental to provide services, and we are looking  forward to continuing this partnerships in the future.”

By providing screenings and care for some of the farmworkers, the school and Access East opened doors for more people to find a dental home—a trusted source of continued dental care. The clinic was designed to offer comprehensive care to as many as 15 patients during this clinic in part to have time to complete as much treatment as each patient needed, Martinez Luna said, adding that the students envisioned what they hoped to accomplish through the clinic.

“I am incredibly proud of their efforts and achievements,” she said. “As a Hispanic faculty member, I am happy to mentor them and collaborate in their projects. The Hispanic population is in great need of oral health awareness and services; this project will not only help them to improve their oral needs but hopefully serve as a starting point for more projects like this.”

The Sonríe Clinic was held on a Sunday because the patients cannot easily see a dentist during weekdays or regular hours because of work, she said.

“This project is aligned with the mission of the school to serve the underserved,” Martinez Luna said. “Projects like this make oral services accessible to them.”

ECU dental students Sara Crump and Sarah Vossers provide care during the school’s Sonríe Clinic for farmworkers on May 16. (Photo by Dr. Maggie Wilson)

Student organizers of the event include Garcia; Luz Lopez, HSDA co-president; Morgan Phillips, HSDA vice president; Taylor Davenport, treasurer; Melissa Sepulveda, social chair and Lee Dickinson, community/volunteer coordinator.

Faculty mentors and staff volunteers were led by Martinez Luna; Dr. Alex Gillone as HSDA mentor, division director of periodontology and clinical assistant professor; Dr. T. Rob Tempel, associate dean for extramural clinical practices; Dr. Ed Connelly, interim associate dean of clinical affairs and division director of predoctoral education; Madge Webster, radiology technologist; Tamara Stephenson, digital imaging specialist; Beth Simpson, director of student services; Nicole Alley, clinical administrator and Tommy Bunting, central supply supervisor.

Garcia said he hopes the inaugural Sonríe Clinic is just the beginning.

“This is the first event of this kind from HSDA, but hopefully not the last,” he said. “We are working on making this event sustainable and are going to try to hold it yearly.”

ECU dental student Brittanie Height often volunteers for school-sponsored events, from care clinics to programs for potential dental students. Volunteering at Sonríe Clinic was no exception for her.

“It’s always a wonderful experience to provide care for patients, free of financial barriers to care. I’m honored be involved in the inaugural clinic and hope that we’ll be able to do many more Sonríe clinics in the future,” Height said. “I’ve always believed that immersing myself in learning and service opportunities beyond the classroom gives me the opportunity to grow as a person, student and practitioner. In these settings, there’s valuable opportunities for learning and connecting more closely with others.”