KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Some may not love going to the dentist, but it's a vital part of staying healthy.
Still, finding a dentist who's both affordable and available is a struggle.
Almost every county in Kansas and Missouri has a severe shortage of dentists, particularly in low-income and minority neighborhoods.
In December, KSHB 41 profiled a local company and nonprofit working to get students into the field by helping them pay their way.
Six months later, GEHA has invested more than $300,000 into UMKC dental student scholarships to diversify and add to the field.
Through this partnership, GEHA and UMKC are changing the health equity in our community.
When someone is in the dentist’s chair, who you trust to hold the tools is important.
Similarities in language, culture and gender are all things that will build trust.
Gene Wllis, corporate social responsibility manager with GEHA, has seen the Kansas City area's dental provider shortages.
For months, they’ve been working to fill the gap using their money to partner with the UMKC Dental School.
They’re helping diverse students get a seat in the classroom.
“We are proud to say this fall will be the most culturally diverse class in their 143-year history,” Willis said. “We have some incredible students coming in. UMKC has particularly pointed to our support in changing the culture of their dental school.”
It’s not just scholarship money, but classes and accountability — building student interest in the dental field before they leave high school.
“We become what we have exposure to, and if you’ve never met a dentist or a dental hygienist, much less one that looks like you or is from where you’re from, you limit some of your ambitions,” Willis said.
Micheal Opara is born and raised in Kansas City.
He’s had success in his academia, volunteering and fellowships.
“I’m still under 21 and I have two degrees — it’s pretty exciting,” Opara said. “This entire week I’ve been saying I’ll be a doctor in four years.”
Through GEHA’s pipeline program, he landed a GEHA scholarship to become a dentist through UMKC.
He recently graduated from UMKC with a Bachelor's Degree in Biology.
“I was lucky enough to have health and medical insurance, but I grew up with a lot of friends in my environment and school who didn’t have that privilege,” he said.
In high school, he was already learning the industry.
“I had a friend come up to me after school and he had pain in one of his back molars, so I took the video on my phone and was able to see two cavities on his back teeth and I still have the video now,” he said.
Now he’ll soon be able to help others.
“Having a dentist understand you and understand your background to where you are comfortable there is very important,” he said. “I want to have a focus with lower income and communities necessarily didn’t have the access .”
GEHA has also given thousands of dollars in scholarships to "Brown Girl, RDH" with a focus to become dental hygienists.