Volunteers Give Kids a Smile This Weekend

Richard Gawel

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Dental schools, societies, and associations all will be reaching out to their communities this weekend at Give Kids a Smile (GKAS) programs across the country. Established nationally by the ADA Foundation in 2003, GKAS has benefitted nearly 5.5 million underserved children with free oral care, thanks to about 10,000 dentists and 30,000 other dental professionals each year.

Its beginnings were much more humble, as Drs. Jeff Dalin and B. Ray Storm held the first GKAS event in 2002 at a run-down clinic with 15 chairs, delivering free care to nearly 400 children. Collaborating with corporate sponsorship, the ADA was inspired to take the dentists’ efforts nationwide.

“It gives me chills to think that millions of children have received care they normally would never have had,” said Dalin. “They will be able to eat and sleep better, have better self esteem, do better in school, and not be in pain any longer.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a quarter of all children younger than age 5 already have cavities. That incidence grows to 25% among ages 6 to 11 and 59% among ages 12 to 19. Also, 80% of all tooth decay affects children from low-income families.

“In underserved communities, children go without any dental care, risking not only their smile, but their physical health as well,” said US Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ). “That is simply unacceptable.”

On Friday, February 5, more than 2,000 children from 6 Jefferson County public schools in Kentucky will get oral health education and free dental screenings from the University of Louisville (UofL) School of Dentistry, supported by Smile Kentucky! and Aetna Better Health of Kentucky. About 250 UofL students, faculty, and staff teamed up with community volunteers to provide the services.

“Our school is dedicated to improving the lives of Kentucky’s children, and that is why we close our clinics for the day to go into community schools to screen and teach kids about dental health,” said John Sauk, DDS, MS, dean of the UofL School of Dentistry.

Also on February 5, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) College of Dentistry will host more than 200 children as students and professional volunteers in superhero and tooth fairy costumes provide cleanings, fillings, extractions, and root canals totaling more than $100,000 in care, as well as oral health education. Nursing students from the medical center also will provide well-child checks.

“This event not only provides badly needed care for underserved children, but also strengthens the spirit of volunteerism and interprofessional education among our students, faculty, and staff,” said David Brown, PhD, executive associate dean of the UNMC College of Dentistry and coordinator of the event.

The University of Buffalo (UB) School of Dental Medicine’s event will be on February 5 as well. Hundred of volunteers including students, faculty, and professionals from the community will serve more than 600 children. In addition to dental care, kids can enjoy games and videos and even meet UB Bulls mascot Victor E. Bull.

“We are in a profession where being kind is a daily responsibility,” said M. Dian ChinKit-Wells, DDS, clinical assistant professor in the UB department of pediatric and community dentistry. “It means one less kid with cavities, one less teenager with a toothache, and one less unhealthy smile.”

The Harvard Dental Center will open its doors on Saturday, February 6 to children ages one to 17 for free dental cleanings, oral exams, referrals, and more. Children ages 10 and older will get free athletic mouthguards, too. Hands-on activities will be available. And, teens who are interested in medical and dental professions can get career information and guidance.

The University of Minnesota School of Dentistry also will be open for GKAS on February 6. Faculty and students will offer exams, cleanings, sealants, amalgams and composite fillings, endodontic screenings, radiographs and x-rays, extractions, and crowns among other services, all free of charge. The Minnesota Dental Association is sponsoring additional clinics at practices across the state.

The students and staff of AT Still University’s Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health, though, didn’t wait for this weekend. On January 22, the school partnered with the Arizona Dental Foundation to serve more than 300 children from the East Valley. Volunteer students and professionals performed cleanings, sealants, fillings, and even extractions, all essential services, as 31% of children in Arizona have never had a dental checkup.

“It’s a rewarding event to be involved with as it gives me an indication of what I can look forward to in the future as a dentist,” said Lucas Shin, a second-year student who is considering a career in pediatric dentistry.

Looking ahead, the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco will host its GKAS clinic on Saturday, February 27. Screenings will include an exam and cleaning, orthodontic evaluations, fluoride treatment, and education. Kids also can take part in games, entertainment, and a petting zoo. No appointments are required.

Volunteers are eager to serve at the clinic, as 37% of 2- and 3-year-olds in California have never been to the dentist, with lower rates for the state’s low-income families. Plus, students in the state miss about 874,000 days of school each year due to dental problems. Children with recent tooth pain are 4 times more likely to have a low grade point average as well.

The ADA Foundation notes the effect these programs have on their communities. For example, the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine’s GKAS efforts earned a $5,000 E. “Bud” Tarrson Dental School Student Community Leadership Award for the 2015 to 2016 school year from the Foundation. It highlights significant student outreach to vulnerable communities in the United States.

“We try to provide some of the more costly services that might otherwise be out of reach financially for these families,” said Dr. Deborah Studen-Pavlovich, chair of the school’s department of pediatric dentistry. “Our primary goal in this event is to promote a lifelong commitment to oral health. We encourage children and their parents to return to the clinic to receive ongoing care.”

“We are very proud of what the Give Kids a Smile program has done to improve the health of millions of children over the years,” said Reneida Reyes, DDS, MPH, president of the ADA Foundation. “We want to make this an even bigger and better initiative in the future, and the key to that is to learn from the experiences of our volunteers who organize and carry out these events. We are very grateful for their time, and for all that they do every year.”

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