Meharry Medical College’s new mobile dental unit, obtained through a partnership with the Black College Fund, administered by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), is enabling students to further Meharry’s long-held mission of providing care for underserved and uninsured people.
The 65-foot mobile unit operated by Meharry’s School of Dentistry traveled across Tennessee from Nashville to Memphis during its first five months, providing oral health care to almost 400 youth who reside in seven state-supported facilities.
“I can remember the faces of those kids and how they were just super happy that we were there,” said Alexis Bryant, a fourth-year dental student from New Orleans, who was on the unit’s inaugural assignment in February to a Youth Villages facility in Bartlett, Tennessee.
In two days Bryant, four other students and two faculty members provided oral health care for 60 youth.
“Being at a black college, I think you have a yearning to help your community and help those that came before you,” Bryant said. “If you see that a community is underrepresented or underserved, most of us feel like we have a duty because doctors, especially black doctors, are not as common as we would like them to be.”
Cynthia Bond Hopson, assistant general secretary for Black College Fund and Ethnic Concerns at GBHEM, said, “the fund provides tools and money, and recipients like Meharry decide on the project. Supporting a project like the mobile dental unit is not just important to the Black College Fund, it is important to the world.”
“This is such a powerful opportunity for us to improve people and their communities all at the same time,” Hopson said. “When you have the confidence – the smile – and go out into the world, you are much more likely to get a great job, or you are much more likely to feel confident enough to follow your dreams.”
The United Methodist Church, through the Black College Fund, supports 11 black colleges, the largest number of historically black colleges and universities of any denominational body in the United States. Approximately 16,000 students are enrolled in the schools.
Dr. Walter R. Owens, associate dean of the School of Dentistry, said Meharry’s mission has always been to provide medical care for underserved and uninsured populations and to minister to them in a way that is a healing of the spirit, as well.
“I think it’s just the mindset that has been the history of Meharry to provide care to underserved communities and individuals who have economic challenges and who have access issues,” Owens said. “That’s been the target populations that we have served from the very inception.”
Owens said Meharry currently provides oral health services for youth who are served by Youth Villages and Universal Health Services Inc., which are under contract with the State of Tennessee.
Negotiations are underway with other organizations to have the mobile unit also provide dental services in underserved areas in eastern Tennessee. The ultimate goal of the mobile dental program is to provide comprehensive care and needed oral health services in various areas where there is a shortage of health professionals and where populations have economic challenges.
Bryant says she and her classmates want to have “that feeling of being a value to someone else, not just doing things for yourself, but for the benefit of others.”
“It’s a very warm feeling to know that you’re helping someone who might not get the help otherwise and to know that they want us to be there. Even after an exhausting day (in Bartlett) we were thinking we should do this more often,” Bryant said.
About GBHEM: As the leadership development agency of The United Methodist Church, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s mission is to build capacity for United Methodist lay and clergy leaders to discover, claim and flourish in Christ’s calling in their lives, by creating connections and providing resources to aid in recruitment, education, professional development and spiritual formation. Every elder, deacon and licensed local pastor benefits from our training and candidacy programs. Many young adults find help in clarifying their vocation and God’s call in their lives through our leadership and discernment programs. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook: @GBHEM.