Dental Students Team Up to Support Special Olympics Athletes 

Healthy Smiles volunteers with athletes

Volunteers from University of the Pacific, Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry; UCSF School of Dentistry; and California Northstate University College of Dental Medicine recently gathered at the Special Olympics Northern California Fall Games in Rio Linda, CA, to provide services to athletes participating in the Nov. 4 event. Over 250 athletes from across the region competed in soccer and flag football as well as in individual skills contests. 

The athletes received services that included caries risk assessment, dental screenings, mouth guards, fluoride varnish and oral health information. 

Special Smiles was one of ​four programs supporting the health of the athletes — the others being Opening Eyes, Health Promotions and Strong Minds — at the event held at the Cherry Island Soccer Complex.  

According to organizers, 95health leaders and aspiring professionals across four health disciplines were onsite to facilitate the screenings, which also gave students hands-on experience working with children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The volunteers completed 320 free health screenings for competing athletes and community members. 

Special Olympics volunteers with athletes

The Dugoni School volunteers represented the Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD), Doctor of Dental Surgery, International Dental Studies and Dental Hygiene programs. In addition, students from the school’s American Academy of Developmental Medicine & Dentistry (AADMD) chapter and the Student Community Outreach for Public Education (SCOPE) organization supported the event, including AADMD leaders Alini Agnes DDS ’24 and Rachel Min DDS ’24 and SCOPE leader Priscilla Hu DDS ’25. 

“Volunteering with the Special Olympics has been a rewarding experience, offering valuable insights into working with individuals with IDD and increasing awareness of their oral health needs,” said Alini Agnes DDS ’24. “Motivated by the challenges of navigating the healthcare system for my brother, diagnosed with autism at the age of three, I became a member of AADMD. This makes my third time volunteering with Special Olympics and I am dedicated to maintaining this involvement throughout my career.” 

People with intellectual disabilities often receive sub-standard care or virtually no health care at all, according to the Special Olympics. The organization reports that out of ten athletes on a Special Olympics team, on average two have never had an eye exam, four need a new prescription for glasses, two have potential hearing loss, four have untreated tooth decay, one to two are in need of urgent dental care, six are overweight or obese and at risk for chronic health conditions, and five have a skin or nail condition. Oral health is the largest unmet health need of those with IDD. 

Special Olympics International’s roots go back to the 1960s, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Chicago Park District collaborated to host a large-scale athletic event for young people with intellectual disabilities. The Special Olympics grew over the years nationally and globally, and in the 1990s, the Healthy Athletes® Initiative was launched to provide health-care services to Special Olympics athletes worldwide. The program includes free vision, hearing and dental screening, injury prevention clinics and nutrition education.  

Special Smiles first launched in 1993, when volunteers screened 750 athletes at the Massachusetts Special Olympics Games. It officially became part of Healthy Athletes® in 1997.  

“Our volunteers did a fantastic job working with the Special Olympics athletes, and several have voiced their support for participating in future Special Olympics Northern California events,” said Dugoni School faculty member Dr. Lynne Wong, who along with Dr. Allen Wong, served as clinical director for the Special Smiles outreach. 

group photo