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Mission of Mercy to again fix smiles

June 13, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- The stars have aligned for improving dental care in the Eastern Panhandle.

That's how Jan Callen, executive director of the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle, explains the meteoric success in drawing attention to a health need in the region she said had been "bubbling" beneath the surface for some time.

People with good dental insurance in the area have had trouble getting dental care because of a shortage of oral health-care professionals, Callen said.

A convergence of interests, people and events, notably the Mission of Mercy (M.O.M.) project, has helped shine an even brighter light on the dire need among area residents who have little or no insurance, Callen said.

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"All the stars were in alignment," Callen said.

The Mission of Mercy project will return to Hedgesville (W.Va.) High School on June 26 and 27. This will be the second year the project will be in the Eastern Panhandle, and more than 800 volunteers are expected to help provide at least one oral health service at no charge.

"We have plenty of volunteers, but we could always use more dental professionals to volunteer," Callen said.

The mission this year, like last year's program, is to help anyone age 18 and older who cannot afford to see a dentist or who is uninsured or underinsured.

The project's goal is to provide services to 1,000 people. More than 1,100 people received services last year.

"I think that crystallized that there truly was a problem and that people truly could not get access to dental care in the Eastern Panhandle," Callen said of the turnout.

Before the Mission of Mercy project put hundreds of faces on the problem, an oral health task was formed, the United Way began transforming itself into a community action agency and startling data about the lack of oral health care among the region's children surfaced.

In 2003, a West Virginia Bureau of Health survey found more than 10,000 Medicaid-eligible children did not have access to dental care.

Three years later, area dentists surveyed said the No. 1 need for the area was a local, nonprofit oral health clinic. The nearest clinic is about 90 minutes away in Baker, W.Va., in Hardy County.

Phone calls received by health officials requesting information about where to get dental health care have topped all others, Callen said.

In between the surveys, a regional oral task force was organized in 2005 and benefited from members Betty Russell and her husband, W. Dean Russell, a local oral and maxillofacial surgeon, who Callen said have been passionate about tackling the oral health need.

"We're determined to make this thing work, one way or the other," Betty Russell said in a December 2006 interview.

That month, the West Virginia University Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center Eastern Division in Martinsburg announced it would back the development of area school-based dental screening programs and oral health awareness programs for young students. Lisa Dunn, who worked at the Jefferson County (W.Va.) Health Department, was tapped for the job.

"She goes right to where the kids are," Callen said.

A licensed dentist, Dunn has seen more than 1,500 children, and provides preventive dental care for children who have little or no insurance.

Callen also credited Terry Dickinson, who as executive director of the Virginia Dental Association in 2000, launched the Mission of Mercy program there and has helped organize the local M.O.M. project.

The local Mission of Mercy project is an initiative of Healthy Smiles of the Eastern Panhandle Inc., which formed in 2008 and is sponsored by the United Way.

While the Mission of Mercy project raised new awareness of the substantial need for oral health, a new dental clinic also is in focus.

A press conference to announce plans regarding the oral health center's establishment will be held June 25, the day before the Mission of Mercy project.

"Our announcement is going to be extremely exciting," Callen said.

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