UNE, Opportunity Alliance partnership providing low-income families access to much-needed dental care

Two UNE dental hygiene students provide dental education to a child at a local social services center
Rhianna Sweeney (Dental Hygiene, ’25) provides oral health tips to Andrew, 9, at the Portland WIC center run by The Opportunity Alliance.

“I like the dentist,” five-year-old Lorena Standback said as she dragged an oversized toothbrush over the edges of a similarly oversized set of model teeth. “They clean my teeth.”

Standback sat in a room at The Opportunity Alliance in Portland, which operates a federal supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in the city’s Bayside neighborhood. Her mother, Dulceneia, sat by, holding her younger daughter — Maya, 4 — in her lap. 

The trio came to the center on this rainy Thursday to take advantage of a groundbreaking partnership between The Opportunity Alliance (TOA) and the University of New England’s Department of Dental Hygiene. The two organizations have formed a weekly, no-cost dental clinic for WIC participants, helping families lead healthier lives when cost and access to dental care would otherwise be a barrier.

In this small room downtown, UNE faculty say, lives are being changed. 

“The need for this type of clinic is infinite,” said Garrett Richardson, IPDH, M.S.D.H., EFDA, assistant clinical professor of dental hygiene at UNE, referencing lapses in acceptance of state-funded insurance by dentists, a dearth of available translation services, and transportation as barriers to care. “The vast majority of patients we see at Opportunity Alliance/WIC in Portland are the exact individuals who make up these shortage gaps.”

Starting in 2023, Richardson and his students have provided dental cleanings, fluoride treatments, anticavity treatments, and oral health education to participants at the WIC office on Lancaster Street, seeing as many as four or five families per day. In that year alone, they provided much-needed dental care to over 130 individuals who otherwise would have likely foregone dental treatment due to financial constraints, language barriers, or both — and that number will only increase once this semester’s numbers are tallied. 

But the treatment doesn’t end at Lancaster Street. 

Thanks in part to funding from Northeast Delta Dental and a collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles, the UNE-TOA clinic has referred over 120 participants to “dental home,” a primary dental office that can best meet their needs over time. 

Great care has been taken to place participants in centers that accept MaineCare, the state’s subsidized insurance plan, and can accommodate their language needs. Northeast Delta Dental has funded language services for participants, about 65% of whom require a translator. Such services are accessed via a telephone in real time.

“The care we are able to provide these families can make a huge impact on their child’s oral and overall body health in the years ahead of them,” said Sarah Hall (Dental Hygiene, ’25), who comes to UNE from her hometown of Raymond, Maine. “It is an amazing experience to help these families and send them home from their visit with a referral to a dental home that takes their insurance.” 

Anna Bullett, M.S., RD, LD, senior director of Health and Nutrition at The Opportunity Alliance, said the clinics are a boon for families with limited access to care, including those seeking dentists and hygienists who will accept new patients and MaineCare insurance.

“There is a huge body of evidence from across the country proving dental hygiene services embedded in WIC offices reduces access barriers and improves oral health outcomes; it is an honor to be able to add Cumberland County, Maine, to that evidence,” Bullett remarked, “I am thankful for our partnership with UNE in helping provide this vital care to our WIC participants.”

This is true for Dulceneia, who recently moved from Boston to Maine with her five children and has endured waitlist after waitlist in the search for dental care.

“It’s been very difficult to find a dentist,” she told The Portland Press Herald during a recent clinic date. “This is a weight lifted off my shoulders.”

The free dental service currently operates about 40 weeks annually during the academic year, though Richardson is currently working with his partners to secure funding that would extend the clinic over the summer when undergraduate students are traditionally away from campus. 

The goal, Richardson said, is to break down the barriers to vital health care services while training more dental hygienists to meet growing demand. 

“This clinic provides our students with an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life who would not have the opportunity if it was not for this clinic,” he said. “We at UNE are eternally grateful for our collaboration with The Opportunity Alliance. This organization is making such a huge impact on the health and welfare of its participants, and we are proud to be at their service.”

Richardson added that the service allows future dental practitioners to learn in an alternative setting, interact with culturally diverse populations, work interprofessionally with caseworkers from WIC and The Opportunity Alliance, and create change in their communities — attributes Hall said will make her a better dental hygienist.

“Providing care at WIC has left a lasting impression on me and has increased my passion for patient care, especially those who are struggling to find dental homes,” she said. “This experience is a phenomenal opportunity for these families, and I am hopeful for this program to continue to grow.”

Dulceneia Standback meets with Dental Hygiene staff and faculty at the WIC clinic.