Filling the gaps

Low-income veterans are getting life-changing dental care and more, thanks to Everyone for Veterans — a nonprofit founded by UW assistant clinical professor Theresa Cheng.

When 68-year-old Ray meets people, he rarely smiles — not because he doesn’t want to, but because he’s self-conscious about his damaged teeth.

“It’s a very limiting factor in social situations and has caused me to avoid people,” says the affable Navy veteran, who served four years of active duty during the Vietnam War. “Being able to smile makes a big difference in your interactions.”

Until recently, he could afford dental care only at low-cost clinics, which couldn’t provide the crowns, bridges and dentures he needed. Although the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides lifelong medical care for many who’ve served in the armed forces, dental coverage is not included for most veterans.

Ray’s luck changed in October, when Everyone for Veterans, a local nonprofit organization, paired him with a Seattle dentist who’d restore his smile at no cost. Founded by Dr. Theresa Cheng, an assistant clinical professor at the UW School of Dentistry, Everyone for Veterans has matched hundreds of low-income combat veterans with nearby dentists.

Dr. Nikole O’Bryan, who volunteers her services through Everyone for Veterans, works on restoring a veteran’s teeth at her Seattle practice.

Dr. Nikole O’Bryan, who volunteers her services through Everyone for Veterans, works on restoring a veteran’s teeth at her Seattle practice.

The human element

The roots of Everyone for Veterans stretch back to 2008, when Cheng was a practicing periodontist and read about the mother of a young veteran gravely injured in Iraq. The story struck close to home — the wounded soldier had attended a local high school and was close in age to her three teenage sons.

Eager to help, she started offering free dental care to veterans and their families once a year at her practice.

But periodontists focus on gum health. They don’t do fillings or root canals, which many of Cheng’s veteran patients needed, so she began referring them to colleagues for follow-up treatment.

Other veterans began reaching out to her, from as far as Michigan and Florida — so Cheng harnessed her professional networks across the country. She even cold-called dentists she didn’t know and asked them to volunteer. Nearly everyone said yes.

More than a decade later, Everyone for Veterans has about 450 dentists, specialists and dental labs in 22 states willing to care for veterans like Ray.

To qualify for the program, veterans must have deployed to a combat zone, show financial need and not be receiving dental care from the VA. An application determines their eligibility, and then they’re matched with a nearby dentist.

“The veterans are really thankful for the work done, but often they talk about the human element,” Cheng says. “They write us notes about how this makes [them] believe in humanity again.”

Ray has sat in countless dental chairs over the years. But when he found a dentist through Everyone for Veterans, he noticed a difference: Dr. O’Bryan (pictured) treated him as more than just another appointment.

“I knew I was in the right place,” says Ray. “We found a connection right away, because she had a family member who was a Navy SEAL.”

Everyone for Veterans at the UW

Help low-income combat veterans and their families get life-changing dental care and more at the UW dental clinics this year.

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Filling other gaps

Though Everyone for Veterans began as a way to bridge the gap in dental services for veterans, it has grown into something bigger.

The more she talked to veterans, the more Cheng heard about other gaps between the services provided by the government and nonprofit organizations. Gaps that could be filled as easily as a cavity, if she could find the right people to help.

Help like getting a taillight fixed so a veteran can safely get to their nighttime job. Or providing a veteran’s newborn twins with diapers, food and clothing. Or helping a veteran’s family move into their new home.

Today, less than 1% of adults serve in active duty in the all-volunteer U.S. armed forces, meaning few Americans count veterans in their inner circle. Civilians who want to help often don’t know where to begin.

That’s where the Wingman project comes in — it’s another way Everyone for Veterans brings together civilians and veterans. Through the Wingman program, anyone, anywhere can sign up to provide their time or services to a veteran in need.

About a year ago, Cheng connected Wingman volunteer Colleen Crowley with a veteran in California who was living in a camper. As the two chatted over the phone about his family and struggles with PTSD, Crowley discovered that the man needed a down comforter to stay warm at night.

“He was like a kid on Christmas,” Crowley recalls, when the veteran received the comforter she sent. “You can make a difference for a person in need. These are small needs that can be met.”

Supporting local veterans

See how volunteers are helping low-income combat veterans in their communities through the Wingman Program.

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Veterans speaking out

Around Veterans Day, Everyone for Veterans hosts an annual open-mic forum. Last November at Seattle Town Hall, on a darkened stage flanked by the American and Washington state flags, the spotlight shone on six veterans who shared their experiences before an audience of friends, family and strangers.

They spoke candidly about their struggles after military service — from survivor’s guilt to substance abuse and thoughts of suicide — and emphasized that it takes time to readjust to civilian life. They cracked jokes about military discipline and described the camaraderie forged in combat units.

“People are generally so detached from war and military service, so the men and women who come back feel like fish out of the water,” says Cheng.

Cheng’s mission in life has shifted since she began offering dental care to veterans and their families in 2008. She still teaches at the UW School of Dentistry, but she retired from private practice to focus on Everyone for Veterans. In 2019, she received an Award of Excellence from the University of Washington for her outstanding public service.

“We don’t all have the opportunity or the gumption to serve in the capacity they did, but we can serve by taking care of our combat veterans,” Cheng says. “Our ultimate vision is that when veterans come back from war, they don’t have to be so isolated.”