Seizing volunteer opportunities has given dental hygiene students at Georgia Highlands College a chance to help their community while also gaining real-world experience.
Students in the program have helped their community both in and out of their classrooms and labs on the Floyd campus by providing free oral health care in Bartow County for the residents of Hickory Log Vocational School in White during spring semester and for participants of BLESS Weekend in April at the Allatoona Resource Center in Acworth.
“It is important for our students and our community for our students to go outside the classroom to meet people and identify the needs of populations that do not have full access to preventive care and to bring those populations into our clinic for care when possible,” assistant professor Regina Gupta said. “We want every citizen in our community to establish care with a local dental practice. However, when they cannot, we believe our students have a unique opportunity to provide preventive care.”
Gupta and Dean of Health Sciences Michelle Boyce worked with Hickory Log, a personal-care home for men with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to have 20 residents visit the dental hygiene students on the Floyd campus for oral care.
"There are many people in our community who do not have access to preventive oral health care," Gupta said. "Oral health care for many is about the treatment of dental problems rather than the prevention of oral disease. As dental hygienists, we want our students to learn firsthand how much can change for patients when they receive the preventive care that dental hygienists can provide. Hopefully, as they begin to practice dental hygiene after graduation, they will strive to discover new ways for the dental community to reach out to provide care for those who do not have access. This was a wonderful opportunity for our students to provide care to a population that historically is dentally underserved."
Gupta said Hickory Log Executive Director Wendy Allen was "able to find funding for the residents’ fees" so they could receive preventive care at the dental hygiene clinic, which offers affordable rates.
"The students learned how to provide the best possible preventive dental care for patients who have special needs, and they met people with remarkable stories who truly touched their hearts," she said.
The hygienists-in-training provided each patient with complete preventive oral health care, including blood pressure screening, an oral cancer screening, a periodontal evaluation, any needed dental X-rays, brushing and flossing instructions and a dental cleaning, Gupta said.
Completing the paperwork and coordinating transportation to Rome for the Hickory Log residents took a lot of time, but Allen "worked tirelessly with us" to ensure the residents would receive care, Gupta said.
"It took multiple trips from Cartersville to coordinate care for everyone, but the process went very well," she said. "Students, volunteers and employees of Hickory Log House did an excellent job in coordinating schedules and getting the residents here for their appointments. Students and residents enjoyed a wonderful experience as they got to know one another during the delivery of care."
The students "took it upon themselves" to research Hickory Log's needs and "made a special donation of items to the residents during their first visits to the clinic" and also provided extra toothbrushes and toothpaste for everyone, Gupta said.
"It was truly an exceptional experience and a wonderful opportunity for Hickory Log residents and for GHC dental hygiene students," she said. "We hope to continue to work with this organization in the future."
A second endeavor to help the community came through the students volunteering to conduct oral cancer screenings, visual cavity detection screenings and oral hygiene education for Bartow County residents during BLESS Weekend, a community outreach event organized by The Bless Coalition that featured health screenings, children's activities, food and resources.
Ten first-year dental hygiene students "selflessly" donated their time to do the screenings for participants and to give each of them an oral care kit and an assessment form to take to his or her dentist, said instructor Kristin Baumann, who was "truly grateful that we had such an outstanding response" from her students.
"One of the things I enjoy most about community service is the opportunity it gives me to touch the lives of others in a way that has a lifelong positive impact," she said. "My hope is that each of the students will grow to love giving back to the community and that they will come to realize the impact even a small act of kindness can have on an individual’s future. This was the first exposure to service learning these students have had as GHC dental hygiene students so I wanted this opportunity to help guide their individual thoughts and feelings for community service. I also hoped the experience would be as personally rewarding as it was beneficial to the Bartow County community."
Baumann, who serves as the first-year clinic coordinator, said she thought her students "worked phenomenally well together."
"I could not be more proud of this great group of students for their display of dedication," she said. "They have consistently exceeded my expectations, and their effort during BLESS Weekend was no exception. Their commitment, passion and professionalism is sincerely inspiring."
She added the event was a "great experience" that she and her students are looking forward to participating in again.