“And leave with a smile on their face:” Public Service Through Free Dental Care

On Wednesday, the Pre-Dental Education and Community Service (PEACS) organization might be working on personal statements for dental school, but come Thursday, the organization transforms into a team of volunteer dental assistants.

Pre-Dental Education and Community Service (PEACS) is a pre-dental student organization at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The organization, lead by current co-presidents Ishan Kulkarni and Sam Strachan, has two goals: create a supportive community for pre-dental and pre-healthcare students and serve underprivileged communities through More Smiles Wisconsin.

PEACS guides undergraduates through dental school applications, class prerequisites and professional development, but the organization is truly unique in its partnership with More Smiles Wisconsin (MSW), a nonprofit emergency dental clinic in Madison, Wisconsin.

At MSW, dentists volunteer and perform free or low-cost dental procedures. PEACS members volunteer at the clinic, doing patient intake, sterilizing dental treatment rooms and carrying out x-rays. MSW serves low-income individuals ages 8 and over, who are uninsured or insured through BadgerCare. The clinic has been in service for over a decade and has served over 9,000 individuals.

“The opportunity to work with patients of all different backgrounds allows students to consider their responsibility as healthcare providers in providing quality care to all types of patients,” Kulkarni says. “As a true healthcare professional, you have to put all your biases aside and treat the patient as a human being.”

PEACS Student Volunteers
PEACS student volunteers

The dental procedures performed at MSW make an immense difference in patients’ lives, yet the clinic can only serve a fraction of the patients in need. This puts the dental field into perspective, Strachan says, as regular dental upkeep is not an option for everyone. For Strachan, volunteering at MSW offers the chance to simply make a difference in someone’s day. 

“We have people come in, and since it is emergency procedures during nights, a lot of the cases we see are extractions, where people are either experiencing an infection or extreme amounts of pain,” Strachan says. “And in the course of 45 minutes, they can come in having the worst day ever and leave with a smile on their face, just because of the work that we’re able to do.”

Both Strachan and Kulkarni agree that the idea of service is central to being a healthcare provider. The two have both recently committed to dental school — Strachan to the University of Utah School of Dentistry and Kulkarni to Marquette University School of Dentistry. Kulkarni says volunteer dental care is something he plans to continue even after dental school, working pro bono like the dentists at MSW. 

“The first thing my mom told me, once I got into dental school was, ‘Don’t lose sight of why you’re doing this.’ We have this word in Marathi, or even in Hindi, called ‘Seva,’ which is basically charity,” Kulkarni says. “She was like, you have the privilege to serve others, and it is one of your civil duties to do Seva — do charity.”

PEACS is partnered with the Morgridge Center for Public Service through the Student Organization Partnership Program (SOPP). SOPP supports the community engagement work of various UW–Madison Registered Student Organizations (RSOs) and community partner organizations seeking to build long-term partnerships with these RSOs.

PEACS Students Volunteers cleaning

By supporting student-led service through SOPP, the Morgridge Center connects with a large new section of community engagement, Morgridge Center Student Organization Preparation Intern Claudia Liverseed says. This passion for public service is clear in the work of SOPP organizations.

“The diversity in perspective of students who are really passionate about different causes brings just a different level of passion and fire to the center,” Keiana James, another student organization preparation intern at the Morgridge Center, says.

Through SOPP, student organizations have access to funding, transportation, meeting space and community engagement workshops. For PEACS, a workshop about community relationships in the fall was especially helpful as the organization was looking to recruit more dentists to volunteer at MSW. 

“I attended the same workshop, maybe two years ago, now. And I still keep those ideas in the very front of my brain when I’m doing outreach to the community,” Strachan says. “And I think sharing that same sort of knowledge with our members allows us to be more effectively engaged with the community because we want to make sure all the relationships that we create are lasting and built on good foundations.”

The Student Organization Partnership Program (SOPP) is a Morgridge Center program that seeks to meet the needs of both UW–Madison students wanting to engage in community-based work through Registered Student Organizations (RSOs) and community partner organizations seeking to build long-term partnerships with these RSOs. The goal is to better connect the RSOs with the Morgridge Center to enhance the quality and quantity of community-based work, a key aspect of UW–Madison’s Civic Action Plan. 

RSOs newly applying for SOPP partnerships will be invited to apply in late March or early April. If RSOs have questions or concerns about SOPP partnerships and applications, email Claudia Liverseed (cliverseed@wisc.edu) or Keiana James (kcjames2@wisc.edu). Find more information about how your organization can apply to be a SOPP partner here.