TAMBCD planting seeds early to address access to dental care

December 9th, 2014
Janie Villarreal demonstrates brushing techniques to elmentary school students.

Janie Villarreal demonstrates brushing techniques to students at Ignacio Zaragoza Elementary.

If Project Dental Awareness had been available to Aja Walker when she was in early elementary school, she probably would have soaked up the hands-on activities delivered right to her campus.

This initiative of Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry reaches approximately 2,500 schoolchildren each year in the Dallas area. Its purpose is two-fold: to increase students’ awareness of the connection between oral health and overall health and to expose them to potential opportunities for careers in dentistry.

As it was, Walker, now a second-year dental student, created her own field-based learning experience that flowed from her early interest in the health professions.

“My mother said she always knew I would be a dentist from the time I found a dead squirrel in our driveway and pulled its teeth,” Walker said. “I wanted to take it to show and tell at school.”

The goal of Project Dental Awareness and Bridge to Dentistry’s other multifaceted components is to have students like Walker enter dental school with the hopes of returning to their communities to serve.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates 108 million Americans lack dental insurance, and those who are covered may have trouble accessing care because of gaps in private dental coverage, the out-of-pocket expense of dental care, fewer dentists practicing in underserved areas and fewer participating in Medicaid. That means many go without necessary oral health care.

“We target students who are from dentally underserved groups, populations and areas,” said Dr. Ernie Lacy, executive director of the Office of Student Development and Multicultural Affairs. “The literature shows that these are the people who will more than likely practice among these populations and in these areas.”

Janie Villarreal shows a student brushing techniques using apaper diagram and toothbrush.Students participating in Project Dental Awareness broaden their knowledge of and interest in dentistry by exploring and becoming familiar with dental procedures, participating in hands-on dental projects, listening to presentations and guest speakers.

The program is designed to be a pathway to dental school.

In middle school, Walker attended a magnet school fair as part of her exploration of high school options. At one booth, she saw the mold of a set of teeth that captured her attention.

“I said, ‘You get to do arts and crafts in high school?’” Walker said. “I love arts and crafts, so I signed up.”

She enrolled at the High School of Health Professions at Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center, selecting its dental assisting program. Before long, her dad was the first to prompt her thoughts of becoming a dentist, something she had not considered. It was at Townview where Walker met Lacy, who told her about TAMBCD’s high school Summer Predental Enrichment Program offered through Bridge to Dentistry.

Walker applied and was accepted. After that first summer, she was hooked: Dentistry was the career choice for her. She attended the program every summer after 10th grade.

“I graduated high school with my dental assisting license,” Walker said. “If it wasn’t for summer programs at the dental school, I would probably be a dental assistant. The programs made me realize there were so many things out there as far as dentistry is concerned.”

When college application time rolled around, she called TAMBCD’s student development staff with a question.

“I asked, ‘If I want to be a dentist, what do I need to major in?’ I was told to major in biology,” Walker said.

She enrolled at Baylor University and stayed in the Bridge to Dentistry summer program offered to college students. Walker had lots of questions to make sure she was on track for getting into dental school and knew she could call the student development office, which had helped her all along.

“The staff in this office was very helpful in guiding me through the process,” Walker said.

In a recent TAMBCD video on thankfulness, Walker expressed gratitude for the Office of Student Development and Multicultural Affairs.

“I’m so thankful for this office right here,” she says, pointing to the signage at the office entrance. “I honestly feel like this program is the only reason I made it to dental school.”

Walker knows she wants to be able to help others.

“Being in the program, they kind of instill the principle of giving back,” she says. “I feel obligated to do something to make a difference.”

— Ladawn Brock