Dover, NJ — Army veteran Frank Mazzie hadn’t seen a dentist in a dozen years, so he jumped at the chance for what he considered a “goodwill mission for my mouth.”
The Nutley resident and more than 200 other veterans from North and Central Jersey flocked to Dover this weekend to be part of the state’s first ever Mission of Mercy — Smiles for Our Heroes, a Veteran’s Day observance to honor them with free, much-needed dental care and more.
The two-day event, a partnership of Delta Dental of New Jersey and Zufall Health, brought together 140 volunteer dental professionals and clinical and non-clinical support staff to provide services ranging from cleanings and x-rays to root canals, extractions, and even dentures.
In a huge, heated tent set up to handle hospitality for the overflow crowd, leaders of the two organizations cited the necessity for offering this kind of service because veterans generally are not eligible for government-provided dental care unless it is directly related to their military service.
“Delta Dental of New Jersey is proud and humbled to have helped create this inaugural event and be able to show our veterans our gratitude in this way,” said Dr. Ronald Deblinger, Chairman of the Board, Delta of New Jersey. “It was a true collaboration and we couldn’t have done it without Zufall, all the volunteers, and especially the support of the New Jersey Dental Association as well as the New Jersey Dental Hygienists’ Association and the New Jersey Dental Assistants Association.”
Hosted by Zufall, Smiles for Our Heroes took place at its Dover Dental Center where patients were served in seven treatment rooms and on the Zufall Delta Dental Mobile, a fully equipped dental office on wheels.
“I want to assure every veteran here that when this weekend is over and this tent is gone, we’re still going to be here,” pledged Eva Turbiner, President and Chief Executive Officer of Zufall Health. “Our buildings and our operatories in six counties will be here to provide affordable dental care and we will work with every single veteran in need in our region to give them what they need, when they need it.”
Helping to celebrate the day was U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance who commended Delta Dental and praised “the marriage of veterans with Zufall — two of my favorite groups on earth.”
Besides the free dental care, attendees were treated to free breakfast and lunch, portraits by professional caricaturist Ed Giordano, goodie bags, a raffle for New Jersey Devils tickets, and some comfort from therapy dogs.
The veterans represented every branch of the military with their service spanning from World War II to recent discharges. Whether a retiree living on a fixed income or a young student veteran who has returned to school, they expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be treated by a dentist.
“I just thought I was going to get my teeth done and get back on the bus to go home,” said Melony Belin of Piscataway, a former Army motor-pool mechanic. “But it was truly a pleasure and a delight to have my picture actually drawn and get all kinds of goodies too.”
For Army veteran Orrin “James” Sundquist, who will receive thousands of dollars of dental care that he otherwise couldn’t afford, it was “like winning the lottery.” “An army of people surrounded me,” said the Parsippany small business owner. “It was like red carpet treatment.”
For the two main organizers at the helm of the weekend event, the first-class treatment was more than justified. Many of the veterans suffered from poor oral health which not only affected their appearance and self-esteem, but could contribute to serious health conditions such as diabetes, respiratory diseases and lead to dangerous infections, explained Dr. Sam Wakim, Zufall’s Chief Dental Officer, and Dr. Gene Napoliello, President and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of DDDNJ Foundation, Inc.
For Nutley’s Frank Mazzie, his weekend treatment represented a lesson in good dental care.
“Neglecting your teeth is like reckless endangerment,” said the Army veteran. “Now I’m looking forward to eating corn again.”
Additional funding for the weekend was provided by primary sponsors Benco Dental, LabCorp, and Valley National Bank, and a host of other financial and in-kind corporate and private donors.