Smiles for Veterans
By Spaine Stephens
Fourth-year East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine student William Via’s rotation at the school’s community service learning center (CSLC) in Spruce Pine handed him the opportunity to care for a group of veterans during the center’s inaugural ECU Smiles for Veterans event.
It was an experience he won’t soon forget.
“I never have worked with a more appreciative group of patients that also deserve the most appreciation themselves,” Via said.
While it was the first ECU Smiles for Veterans event held at the CSLC–Spruce Pine, the school has hosted events through the program since 2018. It partnered with western North Carolina veterans organizations to host the inaugural program 95 miles southwest of Spruce Pine at the CSLC–Sylva. Prior to the Spruce Pine event, the ECU Smiles for Veterans program had provided more than $125,000 of care to more than 275 veterans.
The program was created to reach veterans who have not had access to dental care in the past, part of the school’s efforts to prioritize special populations within its communities. The event provides preventive care and necessary procedures — from fillings to extractions and more — at no cost to the veterans.
In 2018, school leaders joined forces with local veteran services organizations, NC Serves Western and Smoky Mountains Outreach Foundation — now Veteran Smiles Foundation — which provides education and financial support to veterans in North Carolina who want to improve their oral health. As the program has grown and expanded from Sylva to the CSLC–Brunswick County and those in Lillington and Spruce Pine, the Delta Dental Foundation has also become a sponsor through its mission to expand equity in oral and overall health by partnering with community programs.
The community also pitched in to make the day a success. DT’s Blue Ridge Java offered coffee and refreshments, United Community Bank brought lunch, Image Dental Arts provided some partial dentures and local Robert Bailey delivered laser-edged flags to show appreciation to the veterans.
An ECU Smiles for Veterans Patient Care Fund has also been created to help support the program.
ECU Smiles for Veterans events are held throughout the year, and fourth-year dental students completing one of their nine-week rotations at the school’s eight CSLCs might find themselves in the middle of one of the school’s strongest traditions.
“Within the first week of our arrival to the clinic, the whole staff was meticulously planning the event,” Via said. “It was immediately evident to me that the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s Spruce Pine clinic had a passion to serve our country’s veterans. Their foresight and effort could be seen and felt by every veteran patient that participated in the event.”
During the event in Spruce Pine, faculty, students and residents provided $10,000 worth of care to 15 veterans, supported by an enthusiastic office staff.
“Our veterans are a special group of people. They served our country, and through our Smiles for Veterans Day, we get to serve some of them,” said Gene Self, business services coordinator at the CSLC–Spruce Pine. “It was awesome to hear about their tours of duty and to get to hear their stories. The event strengthened our connection by meeting our mission ‘to serve.’”
Self said the event was made more meaningful by the faculty and staff who made the trip from Ross Hall, the dental school’s campus facility in Greenville, to help provide care.
“Serving patients like these and making a difference in our community is one reason I love working at ECU School of Dental Medicine in Spruce Pine,” he said. “Through our partnership with Veteran Smiles and other community partners, we are able to care for underserved patients and make care more accessible for those who need it. Having a positive influence in the lives of people in our community is one thing that drew me to School of Dental Medicine in the first place.”
Charles F., a veteran who received care during the Spruce Pine event, said the care he received that day is already making an impact.
“It’s going to change my life; I can actually smile now,” he said, detailing the procedures he had completed. “I’ve been trying to get care for my teeth for over two years. This is a lot of work, and I’m so thankful for it.”
Via said participating in the event was an experience he will carry with him as he cares for future patients.
“Every patient had an individual story that fit into a collective love and appreciation for our country. I am so thankful to have been a part of that service day. When a service event goes so well, it makes me ready for the next opportunity to do even more.”
He said the event was also unique because many of the school’s faculty who lead the ECU Smiles for Veterans events are veterans themselves who are also active in carrying out the school’s mission of opening doors to dental care across the state.
“Having faculty and administrators that have dedicated their careers to service through the Armed Forces brings an excitement that is hard to describe,” he said. “The service events that the school is able to hold emphasizes the immense need in North Carolina communities, a need that ECU School of Dental Medicine works so very hard to meet.”