A group photo of four people standing next to each other in a row.
Photographed from left to right, Sierra Suarez Friend, Jenna Chun, Bailey Larkin and Ahmad Elmotaseb, along with Cameron Walker (not pictured), joined the Missions of Mercy project during their second year of dental school in 2021. (School of Dentistry)

Class of 2024: Dentistry grads reflect on transformative experience as Missions of Mercy project coordinators

Students play a vital role in the intricate planning that goes into holding the temporary dental clinics designed to serve those in underserved communities.

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On the day of a Missions of Mercy event, you can expect to see dozens of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry students, dental professionals and volunteers hard at work to give dental care to underserved communities. It may feel like the fully functional dental clinic popped up in a school gymnasium by magic, but it actually took the hard work and intricate planning of the MoM student coordinators to make this happen.

Fourth-year dental students Jenna Chun, Ahmad Elmotaseb, Bailey Larkin, Sierra Suarez Friend and Cameron Walker are not only MoM coordinators, but friends and colleagues. The students spend many hours together, working to organize and set up the event down to the last detail.

“It’s just such a powerful thing to be a part of,” Walker said. “You realize how important your role as a dentist is to people.”

All five of the coordinators joined the MoM project during their second year in 2021. This was the first time the projects were held since before COVID.

Missions of Mercy was founded in 2000 by Terry Dickinson, D.D.S., of the Virginia Dental Association Foundation. VDAF and VCU School of Dentistry work together to address oral health needs in underserved areas by creating pop-up clinics that offer free care. The project has been replicated in over 30 states.

The process starts with identifying locations where communities have little access to oral health care. Finding a location to set up a clinic, recruiting volunteers, collecting inventory and then driving trucks full of supplies to the location are just a few of the steps that coordinators take before it’s time to start the event. Coordinators spend a great deal of time working outside of the event – they assist VDAF with inventory, cleaning out trucks and moving items into storage units.

“We walk into an empty gymnasium in a middle school or high school, and we turn it into a fully functional dental clinic,” Elmotaseb said. “Wherever they need us, we go.”

The coordinators often arrive at the venue the day before the event to set up. The next day, patient care starts. The coordinators work diligently with volunteers to address patients’ needs, ranging from root canals and cleanings to extractions and restorations.

“A lot of our job is putting out all the little fires that pop up,” Larkin said. “We have to make sure everyone has what they need, guiding the volunteers in the right direction and addressing any problem that arises.”

A photo of two people wering scrubs standing over a char
Sierra Suarez Friend (left) and Cameron Walker treat a patient during the Missions of Mercy project in Wise in 2023. (School of Dentistry)

Among the volunteers present are VCU School of Dentistry students, faculty and dentists from all over Virginia specializing in oral surgery, periodontics and more. This allows patients to receive any type of procedure necessary that day.

At the most recent MoM event in Suffolk on March 16, 113 patients received free oral health care valued at more than $81,000. The project was supported by the Virginia Dental Association Foundation and OBICI Healthcare Foundation. The event, hosted at King’s Fork Middle School, marked the first time that MOM had been to Suffolk since 2014.

“A lot of patients wait hours and hours outside, and for many of them this is their only opportunity to see a dentist,” Suarez Friend said. “It’s great that we are able to address not just the most pressing issues they had, but also provide cleanings and scalings.”

With over 40 volunteers and more time in the clinic, the coordinators noted that they were able to provide comprehensive care for all patients.

“As a student who wants to get involved in dentistry, I think the easiest way is to volunteer at one of the projects,” Suarez Friend said. “It teaches you time management, communication skills and allows you to get your feet wet providing care and volunteer hours. We do a lot of things here that you don’t necessarily get out of a classroom.”

While student volunteers acquire crucial skills in dentistry, Elmohtaseb believes that the most important part of volunteering is getting to help patients in need.

“Some volunteers might go in excited to do an extraction, but a lot of times the job isn’t all glamor,” he said. “You help out wherever is needed, whether it be sterilization or working at the supplies table. It’s about being selfless in that way and knowing that every role in this has value.”

“None of this would be possible without every single person that volunteers their time and every nitty gritty detail that goes into it,” Larkin said. “I didn’t realize that until I became a coordinator.”

In addition to learning skills in dentistry, the coordinators made lifelong connections in the field.

Chun volunteered at a MoM event as a pre-dental student at VCU. After graduation, she will be starting a residency in pediatric dentistry. During her initial interview process, she quickly realized that one of her future co-residents was not only a former MoM coordinator but the one who taught her how to sterilize instruments.

“You can really see how like-minded people come together in this profession,” she said.

All five of the coordinators will be graduating in the spring and going in different directions. However, their time as MoM coordinators gave them irreplaceable knowledge and experience that they will be utilizing in their next career steps.

Elmotaseb and Walker will be going into private practice, while Larkin will be starting an orthodontic residency.

“You realize how appreciative the patients are of your time and how much this means to them,” Walker said.

A photo of two peopel wearing face masks and eye goggles working on a dental patient in a chair.
Bailey Larkin (right) assists with a procedure during the Missions of Mercy project. (School of Dentistry)

Suarez Friend was also inspired by the experience to go into public health dentistry after graduation. She will be working at a federally qualified health center.

“Both the external rotations and the Missions of Mercy were ways to direct my energy into making a difference and providing really great quality care to patients who struggle to access it,” Suarez Friend said.

This story was originally published on the VCU School of Dentistry’s website.