It’s a quiet April day in Bryan, Texas. But inside the tan brick building that houses the Blinn College District’s Dental Hygiene Program, a storybook princess and her long blond braid disappear down a hallway as she readies herself to put anxious children at ease.
Craft paper, crayons, and colorful toys transform a classroom into a kid’s entertainment zone. Although the former post office that houses Blinn’s dental hygiene clinic may currently resemble a child’s birthday party, its faculty, staff, students, and area volunteers have dedicated countless hours to this moment—the start of the 2019 Give Kids A Smile (GKAS) event.
“When the kids walk through the door, that’s what makes all the hours of advance work worth it,” said Dana Wood, dental hygiene instructor. “This event isn’t just about helping improve the dental health of our young patients. We also are teaching our students that there is more to their work than a paycheck. They learn to have an appreciation for public service at the very beginning of their careers, which is a passion they carry with them for a lifetime.”
The ADA launched GKAS in 2003, and since its inception, more than 5.5 million underserved children have received free oral health services. The program remains a critical piece of the ADA’s Action for Dental Health, a nationwide, community-based movement aimed at ending the dental health crisis in the United States.
Blinn’s dedication to this movement materializes when giggling girls and boys burst through the clinic’s front door at 4:30 pm. As parents confirm appointments, members of the staff escort young patients to the converted classroom, where Blinn dental hygiene students teach them about the importance of proper brushing and flossing techniques.
Before the night is over, the clinic will make sure all patients receive instruction on oral care, x-rays, a cleaning, fluoride, sealants, an exam with a volunteer dentist, and, if needed, a referral for restorative treatments at no cost to the family.
“I am always impressed with the organization of the dental hygiene students,” said Stephen Wright, DDS. “I have been involved with Give Kids A Smile at Blinn College for close to 10 years, and this event provides a huge benefit to our community as a way to provide underprivileged kids access to excellent preventive and long-term restorative care.”
This commitment to service begins months earlier in the classroom of Blinn’s Dental Community Health course, where students plan, coordinate, and run the event with the oversight of an instructor. Through this project, students learn skills they can use to start GKAS programs of their own as they embark on careers in other communities, exponentially increasing the number of children receiving care across the state as new programs are born.
Based on the cases seen at this year’s GKAS event, the Bryan/College Station area and Texas as a whole are in great need of expanded access. Of the 76 children treated during the 2019 GKAS event, 46 displayed signs of active decay. Wood recalls several cases of toddlers in need of surgical intervention with only root tips remaining because of extensive decay.
“These children come from families that don’t have insurance that allows for dental visits,” said Wood. “The average income of families that come to our event live off less than $15,000 a year. I’ve listened to a family decide between whether to buy groceries or pay for a $5 antibiotic that their child needs to treat an infection.”
Blinn Dental Hygiene Program graduate Elvia Young knows firsthand about the barriers to care that many of these families face. The Waco native grew up in a low-income household where healthcare visits were limited to emergencies, and dental visits were nonexistent.
“When I was finally able to have dental care at the age of 18, I was told I had various areas of decay and needed treatment,” said Young. “I was also taught how to properly brush and floss and was shocked that something so simple could have prevented such circumstances.”
She credits this experience with helping her realize a career in the dental field was her calling, and her involvement in GKAS has allowed her to expand her outreach efforts. Young hopes to utilize the experience and planning skills she has gained to establish her own program in the Waco area.
“It’s absolutely amazing helping kids I can relate to. I see myself in them,” said Young. “I get the chance to not only take care of their oral needs, but also educate them and their parents so that they establish healthy oral habits. I’m able to take the knowledge I’ve gained and give back to the community.”
This year marked Blinn’s eleventh year of GKAS, which has provided more than $200,000 in dental services to area residents. Blinn’s outreach through GKAS reflects the instrumental role a community college plays in the area it serves.
The goal of the event is to help as many children as possible, as this visit is often the only treatment they will receive for the year. If all GKAS appointment slots fill up, the clinic schedules overflow families with visits during regular hours, waving the standard $20 fee.
Several of Blinn’s other health science programs are on hand, including Associate Degree Nursing and Vocational Nursing to offer blood pressure, cholesterol, hemoglobin A1C, and glucose checks for adults. Katlyn Kimbrel, a program graduate and pediatric dental hygienist who has participated in the event for seven years, credits her involvement with GKAS as cultivating a dedication to community service.
“Many families go without dental insurance and can’t afford treatment or preventative care,” said Kimbrel. “Participating in this program allows me to provide services to children in need. Being able to impact my hometown in such a positive way really makes me proud to call Bryan, Texas, home.”
Children with newly polished teeth show off their smiles as they emerge from a fire truck tour provided by the local fire department. As the sky grows darker, students and staff wearing expressions of fatigue and fulfillment begin to wrap up the day. The once organized classroom reflects the disarray that young patients leave in their wake, but the students wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This event made a huge impact on me,” said student Katie Tanner. “It’s amazing to see so many service-minded professionals come together to donate their time, skills, and resources to helping the community. It may just be one day, but hopefully we’re improving the long-term dental health of the kids we saw today and establishing habits that last a lifetime.”
Ms. Reams is a communications specialist in the Department of Marketing and Communications for the Blinn College District. With an enrollment of 19,581 students, Blinn ranks among the nation’s leaders in transferring students to leading four-year universities and has received national recognition for affordable educational excellence. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.