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Dental association to honor faculty member as top humanitarian

Dr. Theresa Cheng of the School of Dentistry faculty will receive the 2021 American Dental Association Humanitarian Award for her work on behalf of veterans, the ADA has announced. She was unanimously recommended by the ADA selection committee for the honor, one of the highest bestowed by the organization.

Dr. Theresa Chung
Dr. Theresa Cheng’s work on behalf of veterans has previously earned her the UW ward of Excellence and the Washington State Outstanding Service to Veterans Award.

Dr. Cheng, a periodontist, was recognized for the work she began in 2008 to provide free dental care to veterans in her own practice. She sold her private practice in 2012 to devote more time to her efforts, and in 2016, she founded the grass-roots group Everyone for Veterans (E4V). It received nonprofit status the following year.

E4V enlists volunteer dentists to give free urgent care to low-income veterans who served in combat or other areas of hazardous duty and can’t afford private care. The Veterans Administration provides dental care only to veterans who are declared 100 percent disabled with a service connection. The VA does offer a dental insurance plan, but it is often out of financial reach for hard-pressed veterans.

“Dr. Cheng’s program has provided access to care for needy veterans throughout the country,” said Dr. Daniel J. Klemmedson, ADA president, in an article in the ADA News. “I am impressed by how she has inspired her dental colleagues, dental students and community members to get more involved, and we believe her program will inspire other programs to begin. We are proud to honor Dr. Cheng for selflessly serving those who have served our country so loyally.”

Dr. Cheng, 63, responded modestly to the news of her recognition. “I am of course very happy and humbled by this. However, I also feel a little embarrassed to be recognized for work that I should be doing for these men and women who served, and I want to recognize all the dentists, staff and volunteers who did all the great work.”

The outreach to veterans does not end with the initial free treatment. E4V dentists also encourage their veteran patients to establish a “dental home” where they continue regular dental visits. “We do a general screening, and we tell our volunteer dentists that we want to address not only urgent needs but provide comprehensive care,” Dr. Cheng said.

The E4V outreach to veterans extends beyond the initial free visit for the urgent need, where E4V dentists are asked to provide comprehensive dental treatment. Subsequently, veterans are encouraged to continue regular paying visits to a dentist to safeguard their improved oral health.

Dr. Cheng has expanded E4V’s work into dental schools, including those at the University of Washington and University of Iowa. At the UW, the school is seeking donations to a new Veterans Access to Dental Care Fund to support more free treatment of low-income combat veterans by dental students under faculty supervision.

“Our general and specialty clinics are honored to be of service to those who have served our country,” Dean Gary Chiodo said in an appeal to prospective donors.

After starting as a word-of-mouth grassroots network with a handful of volunteers, E4V has grown to more than 400 dentists plus specialists and dental labs. In 2017, E4V also created its Wingman program to facilitate help beyond dentistry. The program now has about 70 volunteers who help veterans make connections for other life-enhancing services at little or no cost. “You don’t have to be a dentist to make an impact on a veteran,” Dr. Cheng said. “We realize that the VA can’t do everything.”

The ADA award is not the first recognition Dr. Cheng has received for her work with veterans. In 2019, the UW bestowed its Award of Excellence on her, and in 2017 she received the Washington State Outstanding Service to Veterans Award.

She initially started her outreach after reading about a local soldier who was badly injured while serving in Iraq. Thinking that veterans received VA dental care, she initially intended to serve veterans and their families. After learning otherwise, she refocused her efforts.

“My family and I were never associated with the military nor veterans,” she told the ADA News. “What I knew of veterans were from movies like Born on the Fourth of July or The Deer Hunter, and that there was not much I could do besides donate to nonprofits. However, fortuitously, I got connected with veterans and realizing I can make such a huge difference in their lives just got me hooked. Somehow this bug bit me and I felt compelled to help these very deserving individuals, one at a time. What would life be if we are not helping each other and our communities?”

Dr. Cheng will receive her award, which includes a $10,000 donation to a charity of her choice, at ADA’s October meeting in Las Vegas in October.