Rio Salado’s Grant-Winning Honoring Smiles Initiative Brings Free Dental Care to Those in Need


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Friday, March 29, 2024
Rio Salado's dental honors program students offer dental care to public

Miguel Cervantes once wrote "every tooth in a man's head is more valuable than a diamond." Good dental health is essential to overall quality of life, and at Rio Salado College we're proud to offer dental programs to help upskill and train dental practitioners. Our dental students are highly engaged with the local community, offering affordable care at our clinic. As part of that commitment to serving the community, many of them take part in our Honoring Smiles initiative, Rio Salado’s partnership with the University of Arizona School of Public Health.

Student developed and student run, this initiative provides dental students with the opportunity to volunteer once per month at the Mexican Consulate of Phoenix. Volunteers conduct oral exams, apply fluoride varnish, and make referrals for dental care, all free of charge to the recipients.

Monica Williamson Nenad, Rio Salado Faculty Chair of Dental Programs, said that the program developed organically as a reaction to a community’s need.

“The University of Arizona School of Public Health was doing some health screenings at the Mexican Consulate and they shared with us that there was a need to add dental to the services they were providing there,” Nenad said. Rio’s dental hygiene honor students created a project to address this challenge to offer dental care to those in need. For many Rio dental students, this community work has helped them find new patients.

“Our students find a lot of their own patients there that are then treated for dental hygiene services in our clinic,” Nenad. 

As part of Honoring Smiles, the volunteers give out referral information to the patients they help at the consulate, connecting them to medical providers across the Valley to help them address whatever dental issues they may have. The program has expanded to the point that faculty have applied for and received grants to fund the project. These awards include a grant from Delta Dental of Arizona Foundation and a grant from the Mars Wrigley Foundation via the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. The Mars Wrigley Foundation was so impressed with the college’s efforts that they generously gave a grant that was worth more than the maximum requested amount they had on offer.

Thanks to such tremendous support from donors and foundations, the dental program has been able to open a second site at Southwest Human Development. Adjunct faculty member Yvette Thornton helps organize and oversees the student groups who offer services at the second site. Southwest Human Development host educational events at neighborhood parks, which gives dental volunteers a chance to work with families and educate parents about taking care of their children’s teeth.

“That’s one of the things that’s innovative and unique about our honors program is that they’re hosting it at unusual sites, one being the consulate and the other being city parks where families live and play,” Nenad said. “That’s what we talk about in the public health world about meeting people where they’re at—literally and figuratively.”

Part of the success of the Honoring Smiles program can be attributed to the diversity of the dental student population. Two-thirds of the program’s students are Hispanic.

“Our students who speak Spanish are especially valuable at these rotations because there are so many Spanish speaking families that we work with,” Nenad said.

Rio Salado’s dental students are doing their part to put smiles on people’s faces, one community event at a time.



Article by Austin Brietta