A community outreach group at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) was honored with the Harvard Medical School (HMS) Dean’s Community Service Award for its work to provide better access to oral and systemic healthcare to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (WTGH) and other underserved communities on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
The Wampanoag Outreach Group (WOG) Portable Clinic Project was recognized for creating a portable dental clinic plan after the island’s existing clinic at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital closed.
The WOG began building a relationship with the Wampanoag Tribe in 2012 and has provided more than $70,000 in dental care since 2014. The group said it has remained committed to improving access to care and raising awareness of the tribe’s unique oral and primary healthcare challenges.
Although the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital dental clinic closed in 2020, the WOG said it has continued to build its relationship with the tribe by traveling to local powwows and designing a portable clinic for care delivery.
“The Wampanoag Outreach Group has been working diligently for almost a decade on establishing sustainable dental care on the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) tribal land,” said WOG member Natalie Wen, DMD22.
“As we have learned from our public health faculty and as other colleagues involved in outreach have experienced, connecting with a community takes significant time, patience, workforce, and resources. Receiving this award is truly a huge step forward as we continue working with the tribe,” Wen said.
While visits have been temporarily suspended due to COVID-19, each visit typically includes one or two HSDM faculty members and up to four dental students, who assist with procedures including extractions, cleanings, restorations, and dentures.
Over the years, the Wampanoag Tribe has invited students and faculty to participate in several Wampanoag powwows and tribal meetings to learn more about the community and culture.
“Working with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) gives HSDM students the opportunity to volunteer and think outside of the HMS/HSDM bubble on real-world issues,” said WOG member Camile Herzog, DMD22.
“We are able to collaborate with members of the WTGH community to help tackle disparities in oral health access that are impacting individuals every day. We work intimately with the tribe to support their efforts to increase access to oral healthcare,” Herzog said.
The HMS Dean’s Community Service Award was established in 1999 and recognizes individuals whose commitment to community service have made a positive impact on the local, national, or international community. HMS donates $1,000 to the organizations served by award recipients.
“This award honors not only our current work with the tribe, but also the culmination of work by many students and tribal members before our current leadership,” said Herzog. “We are very grateful to have additional funds to support our future work with the tribe to build a portable oral health clinic on tribal land.”
“Participating in this group and immersing ourselves within the Wampanoag culture has been such a humbling experience,” Wen said. “We are all very grateful for the support from the HMS and HSDM communities and the continued trust the tribe gives us.”
As the WOG looks ahead, it said it hopes to inspire other groups to make meaningful connections with underserved communities in need of care.
“We hope that our experience with this pilot program will help inform other underserved communities around the nation about ways to increase oral health access for individuals who do not have access to adequate oral healthcare,” said Herzog.