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College of Dentistry Volunteers help the Community

Volunteers from UTHSC pack boxes of food weekly for those in need. The Love Thy Neighbor program started during the pandemic and continues today.

When the world shut down early in the COVID-19 pandemic, students of the UTHSC College of Dentistry were looking for a way to help their community.

So much was yet unknown about transmission of the coronavirus, and the college was adamant about protecting its students, faculty, staff, and patients from exposure.

“They were just kind of at home and they were looking for ways to help out,” said Cassandra Christiansen, RDH, MPA, EdD, associate professor and director of School-Based Programs and Community Outreach in the College of Dentistry.

From that desire grew a mission that continues today and has helped to prepare more than 15,000 food boxes and provided more than 1,000 toothbrushes and 1,300 tubes of toothpaste for those in need in Memphis.

Dr. Christiansen said the volunteer effort, dubbed “Love Thy Neighbor,” has been a joy, not just for those receiving the food and dental items, but for those distributing them.

“For a lot of the students and faculty members, this was really a lifeline, because it just felt like the whole world was shutting down and we were stuck at home and wanting to do something to help,” she said.

The College of Dentistry partnered with the Memphis Food Bank and Christ Missionary Baptist Church to assemble the food boxes. Every Tuesday, students and faculty volunteer to pack the boxes at the church and distribute them in a drive-through giveaway to Shelby County residents in need.

What started with the College of Dentistry has grown into a campus outreach project.

“I’ve had volunteers to help, I think, from every college on campus, And lots of faculty members will come out, even during holiday breaks.This just speaks to the fact that faculty and students really have a desire to serve and to help.”

Dr. Cassandra Christiansen

In 2020 the UTHSC volunteers helped to prepare 10,000 food boxes, Dr. Christiansen said. “These boxes included approximately 500 toothbrushes, 500 containers of dental floss, and 500 tubes of toothpaste.”

The need decreased a bit in 2021, however, from January to late November, members of the UTHSC community helped to prepare 5,985 food boxes.

Love Thy Neighbor is still going on. “We pack every Tuesday morning 10 a.m.-noon and deliver boxes on Wednesday from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.,” Dr. Christiansen said. “We are still packing and giving away 250 to 300 boxes each week. The need decreased slightly at the beginning of the year, but has picked up again, I believe related to the increase in food costs.”

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This story was initially published in the Winter 2022 Dentistry Magazine.