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UMSOD Brings Smiles to Special Olympics Athletes

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Written by Adam Zewe

University of Maryland School of Dentistry (UMSOD) students, faculty and alumni teamed up to provide free dental services for athletes during the Maryland Special Olympics on Saturday, June 7 at Towson University. The volunteers participated in Special Olympics Special Smiles, a nationwide program designed to improve the oral health of Special Olympics athletes.

Seventy volunteers provided oral health screenings, applied fluoride varnish and made athletic mouth protectors for athletes of all ages during the annual program. They also used tooth models to teach patients proper brushing and oral hygiene techniques. More than 100 athletes received oral health care services during the event.

"There is a lot of dental neglect among patients with special needs. It is often an access to care issue. They may not have the support they need to see a private practice dentist," explains Associate Professor Sheryl Syme, RDH, MS. Syme and Clinical Instructor Leila Liberman, RDH, BS, 17 year participants, have organized the Maryland Special Smiles for the last eight years. The program was founded 19 years ago by Mark Wagner, DMD, a UMSOD professor emeritus who now serves on the volunteer Dean's Faculty.

Liberman hopes the 48 students who participated learned techniques and communication strategies that will help them serve patients with special needs. "This event allows students to become more comfortable working with this population. Special Smiles also shows them the value of paying it forward. I hope that stays with them throughout their careers," she remarks.

Chris Tolmie, DDS '16, enjoyed interacting with the athletes. "The greatest challenge for me was realizing that, even though there were moments when it seemed like the athletes were not paying attention, they were absorbing everything I was describing. It was a good reminder that not everyone learns in the same way," he states.

Shebani Pahwa, DDS '15, was impressed by how quickly the Special Olympics athletes grasped important oral health care concepts. The event was also a learning experience for Pahwa. "This program has taught me that, in some ways, these athletes are no different than you and me. They are competitive, compassionate and bright individuals capable of many things under the right guidance," she offers.

The UMSOD volunteers received support from the Maryland Academy of General Dentistry, the Greater Baltimore Dental Hygienists' Association and the Mid-Atlantic P.A.N.D.A. (Prevent Abuse and Neglect through Dental Awareness).

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