ECU dental school’s Smiles for Veterans program marks years of growth, success

Justin Shimer helped provide oral health care to U.S. Armed Services veterans during East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine’s ECU Smiles for Veterans event Nov. 18 — and in return, he heard the stories they needed to tell.

Shimer, a fourth-year dental student at ECU, is completing a rotation at the school’s community service learning center (CSLC) in Sylva and had the opportunity to participate in the day set aside to provide free dental care to veterans from western North Carolina. Shimer said that while he has volunteered at events over the years, ECU Smiles for Veterans was a particularly poignant moment in his dental school experience.

Dr. Dianne Caprio, right, director of the dental school’s community service learning center in Brunswick County, helps provide care during the CSLC’s ECU Smiles for Veterans event in 2021.

Dr. Dianne Caprio, right, director of the dental school’s community service learning center in Brunswick County, helps provide care during the CSLC’s ECU Smiles for Veterans event in 2021. (Contributed photo)

“Being a dental student, I was able to physically perform the procedures for these veterans and listen to the different stories that they wanted to share,” he said. “This made the day so much more special, and I hope as a practicing dentist I will have more experiences like this to serve my community and honor those who have served.”

Held annually, the ECU Smiles for Veterans event serves pre-screened veterans by providing a variety of dental procedures that faculty, residents and students complete. The program originated from a partnership between the ECU School of Dental Medicine, NC Serves­-Western, and the Smoky Mountains Outreach Foundation — which has since shifted to the Veteran Smiles Foundation.

This month’s event in Sylva provided care for 23 veterans, but the impact of ECU Smiles for Veterans has expanded in nearly every way over the years. The inaugural event was held in Sylva in 2018; since then, events have been added at the school’s CSLCs in Brunswick County and in Lillington near the middle of the state. Veterans living in more counties have access to the service, and more students and residents are securing the clinical hours and the unique experience of serving special populations.

Since 2018, the events have provided care for close to 275 veterans across the state.

For students like Shimer, the value lies in the face-to-face interaction and dental procedures that result in happier, healthier smiles.

“People come from all walks of life and don’t always have the same opportunities, but everyone wants and deserves a happy smile,” he said. “I am glad the ECU School of Dental Medicine recognized the need for rural dental health and not only visualized but delivered the CSLC model throughout North Carolina. These clinics have given me an opportunity to make a difference and create those smiles for many patients from those overlooked rural communities.”

The idea for ECU Smiles for Veterans came from conversations between the local organizations and dental school faculty and leaders — many of whom are veterans themselves.

“As veterans, we understand the sacrifices many of these men and women have made to serve our country,” Dr. Robert Manga, faculty director of the CSLC-Sylva, said during the inaugural event in 2018. “They served their country, and they deserve our thanks. This is one way we can thank them.”

The veterans who receive care are first screened at “stand down” events, at which veterans are connected with a variety of resources from haircuts to blood pressure screenings and dental care.

After the first Smiles for Veterans event, veterans voiced their thoughts on having a day that was just about them and their oral health care.

“It means a lot to me because it shows people actually want to help each other,” said Lloyd Holland of Murphy, one of the first veterans to receive care through ECU Smiles for Veterans. “In North Carolina, people just care more about each other, and this event shows that. It’s hard for me to say what I feel, but it feels like a brick has been lifted off my back.”

The School of Dental Medicine’s inaugural ECU Smiles for Veterans event in 2018 at its community service learning center in Sylva attracted veterans from every branch of the military, from seven western North Carolina counties.

The School of Dental Medicine’s inaugural ECU Smiles for Veterans event in 2018 at its community service learning center in Sylva attracted veterans from every branch of the military, from seven western North Carolina counties. (Photo by Spaine Stephens)

In 2021, ECU Smiles for Veterans expanded to the CSLC-Brunswick County, where more than two dozen veterans received care.

“There is a very large veteran population in this area. Unfortunately, many of them cannot afford good dental care,” said Dr. Dianne Caprio, faculty director for CSLC-Brunswick County. “We’re hoping that through this day and awareness, they can find a permanent dental home here at Brunswick.”

Veterans at that event shared their sentiments after their appointments.

“It is phenomenal, unbelievable. I have no pension, so this is such a benefit to me,” said Michael O’Rilley, a Southport resident and U.S. Navy veteran. “Most veterans cannot afford it and they need the help. The people are finally stepping up and helping the veterans more, which we’re all thankful for.”

The events across the state help offset difficulties that many veterans face in accessing dental care.

“Only 8 percent of U.S. veterans qualify for dental care though the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs), which means that in North Carolina there are approximately 88,0000 veterans who don’t qualify for dental care and are low means,” said David McCracken, chairman of the Veterans Smiles Foundation. “So, we donate money from our foundation to the ECU Medical & Health Sciences Foundation to cover the costs for the full-range of dental services for as many veterans as we can get, and all of the work at the clinic on this day is for veterans only.”

Instead of charging the veterans for these services, McCracken said the Veteran Smiles Foundation simply asks the veterans to donate money back to foundation — if and when they are able — as a means of paying the generosity forward to other veterans in need.

Earlier this year, the program expanded yet again, to the CSLC-Lillington, which opened up access to the event to veterans from counties near the heart of the state.

The ECU Smiles for Veterans Patient Care Fund, part of the school’s Patient Care Funds program through the ECU Medical & Health Sciences Foundation and ECU Advancement, supports current and potential programs and events that offer low- and no-cost dental procedures and preventive care to veterans in financial need.

“The success of the ECU Smiles for Veterans events in Sylva led to the creation of this fund, which represents the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s permanent commitment to caring for veterans all across our state,” said Dr. Greg Chadwick, dean of the dental school. “A vital part of the school’s mission is serving special populations, and this fund makes it possible for the SoDM, its partners and supporters to work together in the name of oral health for those who have served.”

Ashley Collins of the dental school’s class of 2022 said last year after caring for patients at the Brunswick County event that the experience of serving veterans in need will be something that continues to provide inspiration beyond the one-day event.

“It’s so awesome to be able to take the things that we’re learning in the clinic and be able to put that to use to serve people who have done a lot for us,” Collins said. “To be able to give them something back is a really great feeling and definitely something that we would want to continue in the future as we go out and become dentists across the state.”

Families of those who received care have also expressed enthusiasm for the event over the years.

Janet Sadlon brought her husband to the inaugural Smiles for Veterans event from Franklin, North Carolina, to get several fillings and other dental procedures. While she waited, she talked with other veterans and exchanged stories about service and life. She said ECU Smiles brought out the best in not only those providing dental care but also in the veterans who found common ground with comrades sitting side by side in a waiting room.

“Nobody knows what these veterans gave up,” Sadlon said, “and to have this event is just unbelievable.”