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Volunteer project with Special Olympics highlights importance of access to care for Virginians with disabilities

VCU School of Dentistry students and faculty provide free dental screenings as part of first of its kind collaboration to support Special Olympics Virginia athletes.

Students stand together in a stadium smiling VCU School of Dentistry volunteers provide free dental care to patients with special needs. (VCU School of Dentistry)

By Mackenzie Meleski

For Robert Harris, the Special Olympics Virginia is an opportunity to feel the rush of competition and pride in his accomplishments. It’s also a chance to receive oral health care.

The Woodbridge man has participated in powerlifting at the Special Olympics Virginia for 20 years. Nicknamed the Hulk, his lengthy career has even taken him to the USA Games in 2022, where he won four silver medals.

Powerlifting is not his only skill; this year, he decided to partake in bowling as well. Harris dedicates hours every week to practicing and training for these events, which he takes great pride in.

“It feels great to participate,” Harris said. “I like to keep myself healthy and take care of myself through sports. I also like meeting other athletes from different areas.”

The Special Olympics Incorporated (SOI) provides participants across the world with opportunities to thrive and experience the joy of athletics. However, maintaining health through physical activity is just one aspect of health care available at their events. They also serve as one of the largest global medical homes for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Weight lifter pumped up and yelling happily after finishing a lift

Robert Harris competing at the Special Olympics USA Games in 2022. (Photo by Special Olympics Virginia)

Special Smiles is a division of Special Olympics Healthy Athletes that teaches its athletes how to maintain good oral hygiene practices, receive screenings and achieve better overall health outcomes through improved dental care. It also aims to raise awareness about the importance of oral health and improve access to dental care for this population, who often face barriers to receiving adequate dental treatment.

In 2011, Virginia Special Olympics Healthy Athletes: Special Smiles and the Virginia Dental Association Foundation’s (VDAF) Mission of Mercy project (MOM) began to collaborate in order to provide free comprehensive dental care to Special Olympics athletes like Harris. The Special Smiles partnership with the VDAF and the MOM project was the first of its kind at the state level.

After winning gold during his bowling competition, Harris visited the Special Olympics MOM project to get an extraction after weeks of pain. Like many individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD), Harris has struggled to find a dental home that can care for his needs.

“It’s important to take care of things like this,” Harris said.

Matthew Cooke, D.D.S., M.D., MPH. is the clinical director of the Healthy Athletes Program for Special Olympics of Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Every year, Cooke organizes the Special Smiles event at the Special Olympics Virginia, visiting all the way from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He’s no stranger to Richmond though.

Cooke earned his D.D.S. degree from VCU School of Dentistry in 1997. It was the first of three degrees and two certificates that Cooke would earn from VCU.

He completed his pediatric dentistry and dental anesthesia residencies in 1999 and 2001, and earned his master’s in public health and M.D. in 2005 and 2007 respectively.

During the last year of his dental anesthesia residency, Cooke had the opportunity to train as the Healthy Athletes coordinator for Special Olympics of Virginia in Anchorage, Alaska at the 2000 Special Olympics World Winter Games, where he found a passion for helping patients with special needs.

Cooke identified the limitations of the SOI screening program early on and noted that Virginia boasted one of the most robust Missions of Mercy initiatives nationwide. He contacted Terry Dickinson, D.D.S., who was then the executive director of the Virginia Dental Association and a leader in Mission of Mercy efforts, to explore a collaboration. This marked the inception of a best practice model for care.

“That was sort of the big push toward access to care for individuals with special health care needs or disability dentistry,” Cooke said. “I think we're evolving, trying to be sensitive and inclusive. We're trying to get away from simply calling it special needs and instead recognizing that they are individuals that need different care.”

Dentist working with patient

Matthew Cooke, D.D.S., M.D., MPH. is the clinical director of the Healthy Athletes Program for Special Olympics of Virginia and Pennsylvania. (VCU School of Dentistry)

In 2011, he joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine to work as an educator and researcher. However, VCU and Richmond continue to hold a place in his heart.

“It's an opportunity and a pleasure to be back in Richmond,” Cooke said. “I certainly appreciate all that VCU did for me and for my training.”

Cooke is currently an advocate for inclusive health, whether it be educating students and treating patients at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine’s Center for Patients with Special Needs or traveling the country to give lectures.

“My professional mission and vision is to help current dental students and residents to move to the next level so they can provide the best care,” Cooke said. “Especially when it comes to disability dentistry.”

Each year, Cooke brings dental students from the University of Pittsburgh to the Special Smiles and Missions of Mercy event, joining dozens of students, faculty and residents from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry and volunteers from community practices to provide free inclusive dental care to patients with disabilities.

For patients with disabilities, finding convenient and accessible healthcare suited for their needs can be a challenge. While many pediatric dentists are able to provide care for patients with disabilities, challenges arise when they reach adulthood.

Studies show that patients with disabilities are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status, and challenges arise when they rely on Medicaid or Medicare to pay for health care but are unable to utilize their coverage for dental care. Additionally, private practices don’t always have accessible amenities for patients with physical disabilities. While pediatric dentists are trained to handle children that might be anxious or lash out, they are not always equipped to handle adult patients with similar fears.

Because many dental practices lack dentists with training and equipment to treat patients with conditions that demand specialized care, the Missions of Mercy partnership becomes an opportunity for patients to receive treatment.

“Although events like this help our Special Olympics athletes in need, it cannot compensate for the unwavering oral health disparity of patients with IDD or anyone else suffering from lack of access to dental care,” Cooke said.

Man smiles with gold medal

Each year, Robert Harris competes in powerlifting at the Special Olympics Virginia. It’s also a chance for him to receive oral health care at the Special Olympics MOM project. (VCU School of Dentistry)

One way VCU School of Dentistry is working to address the need is by opening the Roger Wood Special Care Dentistry Clinic in late 2025.

Roger Wood, D.D.S., had been treating special needs patients in his pediatric practice for many years before he retired. He emphasized the importance of educating dentists on treating patients with special needs. This belief led him and his wife to establish this clinic at VCU School of Dentistry.

“Many parents and patients come to me because they don’t know where to go,” Wood said. “A lot of pediatric dentists will see children with special needs but they will cut them off once they reach adulthood. They don’t know how to work with them once they get large. After I retired, I started getting calls from parents asking ‘where can I go’? We have to step up and give them a place to receive care, and teach others to treat them as well.”

The Roger Wood Special Care Clinic is the start of something new for dentistry at VCU School of Dentistry, Wood says. He hopes that the clinic will not only kickstart the initiative for better access to care, but inspire others across the country.

"It's about equipping students with the tools they need to effectively and safely care for individuals with disabilities and provide inclusive oral health. Inclusive health requires providers to plan for the medical, dental, and behavioral components of treatment. This comprehensive approach is crucial and highlights the school's forward-thinking vision," Cooke said.

The initiative to provide care for patients with disabilities will only help them thrive and give them more opportunities to achieve their goals, whether it be in powerlifting, bowling or more.

Just take a look at Robert Harris, who is able to go above and beyond in his craft every day.

“I’m so grateful to get to participate every year,” Harris said. “It feels awesome to compete and win.”