Creating smiles for UCLA's military veterans and former foster youth

Posted on: Monday, 03/14/2016

The first thing you’ll notice about UCLA political science major Rodrick Fox is his engaging smile.

Fox, who graduates in June, exudes confidence and a sense of pride. But it wasn’t always so. When he first entered UCLA in 2014, he was self-conscious about his smile and was worried that people would notice how much major dental work he needed.

He was missing two front teeth and had implants placed in the bone, but before he was able to get crowns for those implants, he ran out of money and instead had to wear a partial denture … until it broke, leaving him unable to speak clearly. He also had wisdom teeth that had to go.

“I was looking at thousands of dollars of dental work to get to the point where I could be proud of my smile,” Fox recalled. “It was very daunting, and my dream to fix my front teeth was fading.”

Luckily, Fox, a military veteran, filled out a health survey sent out to all student veterans by the UCLA Bruin Resource Center and the UCLA Veterans Resource Office. Through Emily Ives, coordinator at the resource office, and two UCLA dental students, assisted by dental school staff, Fox received help from a new student-run patient care subsidy program called Operation Bruin Smiles.

Started by UCLA dental students Brian Lehigh and Tigon Abalos with the help of Minh Tran, director of curriculum and academic enrichment at the UCLA School of Dentistry, the program provides subsidized dental care to former foster youth, through the UCLA Guardian Scholars Program, as well as military veterans.

Operation Bruin Smiles received a big boon when the dental school’s Office of the Dean awarded it a $10,000 grant. A $2,500 grant came from the Chancellor’s Office/Healthy Campus Initiative, and the ADA Foundation awarded the school the E. “Bud” Tarrson Dental School Student Community Leadership Award, which includes $5,000. The grants helped pay for dental treatment and supplies for more than 30 patients in need.

Dental students in their final year of school, Lehigh, who volunteers at the Veterans Administration West Los Angeles Medical Center, and Abalos, who served in Afghanistan in the Army, want to use their remaining months at UCLA to build the program and fundraise. Operation Bruin Smiles has now added a faculty advisor, Dr. Edmond Hewlett, who is Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and six more dental students as members.

“There is a population of more than 400 UCLA student veterans and former foster youth that we could potentially reach with Operation Bruin Smiles,” said Lehigh. “I'll be excited to see how far the younger DDS students can take this program after Tigon and I graduate.”

On Saturday, March 12, the student group launched a UCLA Spark campaign to raise $10,000 in 30 days. Dr. No-Hee Park, the dental school’s dean, recently pledged that the School of Dentistry will match every dollar raised through the campaign, up to $10,000.

“Our hope is that this Spark campaign raises the necessary resources to serve even more individuals who need access to quality dental care, but may not be able to afford the costs associated with complex treatment plans,” Lehigh said.

As for one of their first beneficiaries, Fox now has two perfectly shaped implant crowns and looks forward to showing off his new smile at his upcoming graduation. The crowns were fully paid for through the patient care subsidy fund; the removal of his wisdom teeth was partially covered by the fund.

“I got my smile back,” Fox said. “Having this work done has completely renewed by confidence. Words can’t express how thankful I am to Operation Bruin Smiles and to the students who helped me.”