Monday, November 23, 2009

Students Help Homeless Move Life Forward

By David Staudacher, Rio Salado College PR Manager, 480.517.8472

Every night, the Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) helps hundreds of homeless individuals by offering them a safe place to sleep. While CASS is known for its beds, the shelter offers many additional services to help the underprivileged get their lives back on track. One of those services is free dental care. CASS’s dental clinic treats approximately 5,000 to 6,000 patients annually, with the help of generous donors and volunteers. Among the volunteers are instructors and students from Rio Salado College’s School of Dental Hygiene, who visit the clinic twice a week.

"I have a soft spot in my heart for the homeless," said Rio Salado School of Dental Hygiene student Emily Miller-Lehr, of Tempe. "I had actually volunteered for CASS before I was a Rio student so I kind of knew what I was getting into.”

At the clinic, Rio Salado’s hygienists clean teeth and take on the responsibility of teaching patients appropriate oral hygiene techniques and counseling them regarding good nutrition and its impact on oral health.

"Our homeless population — between the poor hygiene and nutrition — really, really need a good cleaning, and that is one of the biggest issues we have here," said Annette Chun, CASS Dental Clinic manager. "The partnership with Rio Salado helps get these patients that come through here the professional cleaning that they wouldn't otherwise be able to get."

For some homeless individuals, the dental treatment goes beyond a cleaning. Often, it is the difference between getting a job and getting rejected.

“I had a patient that I think it had been 10 years since she said she had been to a dentist, and it was nice to help her out,” said Miller-Lehr. “She was a great patient. She‘s recovering from homelessness, so she’s going into the workforce and [CASS is] working on getting her a stable place to live. So it’s looking really good for her.”

According to CASS Dental Clinic Director Kris Volcheck, the path to a homeless patient’s success starts with the Rio Salado students.

"At the base of everything we do is hygiene," said Volcheck. "I'm not going to do a $20,000 makeover if that person is not keeping up with their hygiene on a daily basis. The hygiene students are really at the core of what we're doing here for prevention and for continued oral health. They start with them, and those students give us a consistent supply of cleanings for our patients. Without that I can't really proceed to the next level of fillings, crown and bridge.”
“Their being in on a weekly basis allows me to schedule most of our clients on a timely manner and then move them on to the other parts of dentistry,” he said. “So it's absolutely critical that they are in [the clinic].”

Besides volunteering at CASS, the students perform low-cost cleanings on patients for $25 at the Rio Salado College School of Dental Hygiene, 1150 E. Washington St., Phoenix.

To learn more about Rio Salado College's Dental Hygiene program, visit or call (480) 517-8020. To learn more about CASS and how you can help, visit