Spring 2019

A Service Milestone

The Tufts Student Hispanic Dental Association celebrates a mission-driven twenty-five years.

By Laura Ferguson

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Two Saturdays a month, at least a half dozen members of the Tufts Student Hispanic Dental Association (TSHDA) catch the MBTA’s Orange Line to Most Holy Redeemer Parish, a Catholic church in East Boston. During breaks in the children’s religious-education classes, the dental students lead fun activities around good oral-health practices, such as a show-and-tell on sugary sodas.

“We cover all the basics—brushing, flossing, and eating right,” said Sandy Perez, D19, president of the TSHDA. “We’re trying to target an age group—from about four to twelve years old—where dental habits are most likely to be firmly established. Sometimes I get a hug or smile back, and I know it’s all worthwhile.”

Helping kids from underserved populations learn good oral-health practices has been one of the priorities of the TSHDA, created twenty-five years ago by associate clinical professor of periodontology Aidee Nieto Herman, a year after she founded the Massachusetts Hispanic Dental Association (MHDA) for professionals.

As MHDA has flourished, so has the student group, often working together to promote proper dental care among Hispanic communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mexican-American and black, non-Hispanic children, ages two to four and six to eight, are among the most underserved populations when it comes to access to dental care.

Poor dental care, of course, contributes to cavities and tooth decay, and, as the CDC points out, “untreated cavities can cause pain and infections that may lead to problems with eating, speaking, playing, and learning. Children who have poor oral health often miss more school and receive lower grades than children who don’t.”

The Tufts group takes a broad approach to closing that health-care gap, reinforcing the role of good daily habits and regular dental visits and cleanings through free oral-health screenings at public schools and clinics, among other outreach activities. The TSHDA has partnered with the Colgate “Bright Smiles, Bright Futures” screening van, and with other student groups for Give Kids a Smile Day, an American Dental Association initiative. And their call to action is not limited to the Boston area: TSHDA students travel every year to the Dominican Republic for a week to provide free dental care; this year, students will also travel to Guatemala for the first time.

Zuzana Mendez, D08, a past president of MHDA and a dentist in Dorchester, came to Tufts from the Dominican Republic, and found the Tufts chapter “a community of students who understood me and what I cared about,” she said. “Its impact is still going on, as we’re starting to see more Spanish-speaking dental professionals.”

Herman, the group’s faculty adviser for two decades, and president of the Hispanic International Mission, has been a driving force behind that change as an inspiring mentor; last year the national HDA honored her service with the Women’s Leadership Award in Education. No less important, though, is seeing, year after year, how TSHDA students bring personal, deep commitments to serving others, particularly children.

“Kids need someone who listens to them, who cares about them, who motivates them, and these students are doing a wonderful job,” she said. “Someone once asked me what I enjoy most about teaching at Tufts, and I said that I am proud to educate the very best clinicians, but I am also proud to educate the most compassionate dentists; they are professionals who go on to serve not only America, but the world.”

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