Dr. Theresa Cheng of the University of Washington School of Dentistry will receive the 2021 ADA Humanitarian Award for her work on behalf of veterans. She was unanimously recommended by the ADA selection committee for the honor, which is one of the highest bestowed by the organization.
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. In 2016, she founded Everyone for Veterans (E4V), which 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% 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, according to the school.
“Dr. Cheng’s program has provided access to care for needy veterans throughout the country,” said Dr. Daniel J. Klemmedson, ADA president.
“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,” Klemmedson said.
“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,” Cheng said.
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,” 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.
Cheng has expanded E4V’s work into dental schools, including those at the University of Washington and the University of Iowa. At the University of Washington, the dental 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,” said University of Washington School of Dentistry dean Dr. Gary Chiodo.
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,” Cheng said. “We realize that the VA can’t do everything.
In 2019, the University of Washington honored Cheng with its Award of Excellence, and in 2017, she received the Washington State Outstanding Service to Veterans Award.
Cheng 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.
Cheng will receive her award, which includes a $10,000 donation to a charity of her choice, at the ADA’s October meeting in Las Vegas.