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VCU School of Dentistry serves underinsured families at Give Kids a Smile event

The annual event organized by the VCU School of Dentistry aims to eliminate barriers to accessing dental care for the leading chronic disease affecting children.

Little girl sitting in a dentist's chair giving a thumbs up. Student also smiles and gives a thumbs up. Studies show that children with established dental homes, such as a dentist’s office or clinic, have better oral health outcomes. (VCU School of Dentistry)

By Vernon Freeman Jr.

For many children, going to the dentist can be scary. But all the adults in the room did everything they could to soothe the nerves of pediatric patients at last Friday’s Give Kids a Smile event, hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Dentistry and VCU Dental Care.

Whether it was bright smiles, high-fives or animal balloons, volunteers made the day a special one for attendees.

Each year, VCU School of Dentistry and VCU Dental Care come together to provide oral health care to children that may have otherwise gone untreated. The volunteers are made up of VCU students, faculty, dental residents and staff.

During this year’s event, the Pediatric Dental Clinic at VCU School of Dentistry provided care to 80 patients valued at more than $52,000. Services provided included teeth cleanings, applying sealants, placing crowns, and, when necessary, extracting teeth.

Small child sits in a chair and points to a device held by a dental care provider.

More than 55 residents as well as dental and dental hygiene students from VCU volunteered at the event. (VCU School of Dentistry)

A program launched by the American Dental Association in 2003, Give Kids a Smile encourages oral health care providers to offer a day of free dental care to underinsured families in celebration of National Children’s Dental Health Month in February.

“This event is so important because it targets children who wouldn’t normally get care either because of an inability to pay or a lack of insurance coverage. So, this is a way that we can get them the care they need,” said Jeffrey Johnson, D.M.D., M.P.H., chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tooth decay, also known as cavities, is the most common chronic childhood disease in the United States. If left untreated, cavities can not only have a significant impact on children’s health, but also their grades and learning. Studies show that children who have poor oral health miss more school and receive lower grades compared to children who don’t.

“When kids are not in school, or they are in school but in pain because of unmet dental needs, their reading and studying suffers, they can’t focus and oftentimes their nutrition suffers,” Johnson said. “We want to have them healthy, and oral health care is the gateway to that.”

Two students from each dental class helped organize Give Kids a Smile along with faculty advisor Carol Caudill, D.D.S. In total, more than 55 dental and dental hygiene students from the school volunteered at the event, as well as many residents in the Advanced Education in Pediatric Dentistry program.

Give Kids a Smile coordinator and fourth-year dental student Natalia Chavez Choque says several students and staff served as Spanish interpreters, helping to communicate with a large Spanish-speaking patient population.

Little girl with sunglasses sits in a chair. Student stands next to her preparing for her appointment.

Recognizing how seeing a dentist can be scary for young patients, volunteers went above and beyond to make sure each child felt comfortable during their appointment. (VCU School of Dentistry)

“Many of the first-and second-year dental students and junior dental hygiene students greeted patients and worked to educate them about oral hygiene through games and activities, while third- and fourth-year dental students and senior dental hygiene students provided care in the clinic alongside residents and faculty members,” Choque said.

“Oral hygiene education is a very important part of Give Kids a Smile,” Johnson said. “We want families to be proactive about their children’s oral health and understand its impact on overall health.”

Johnson says it is imperative for parents to establish healthy oral habits for their children at an early age. Data shows that children with established dental homes have better oral health outcomes.

“A dental home is meant to be exactly that. A place where kids can get all their oral health care needs met,” Johnson said. “Whether it's here at VCU or at a community provider, children should start seeing the dentist by 12 months of age, or within six months of their first tooth.”

To help with future care needs, representatives from Anthem and DentaQuest were on-hand to help families navigate insurance coverage. Many also scheduled follow-up appointments to continue receiving care at the Pediatric Dental Clinic at VCU School of Dentistry.

Group of students and children stand for a photo. Students are in costumes that look like tooth brushes.

VCU students, faculty, dental residents and staff volunteer for the annual Give Kids a Smile event. (VCU School of Dentistry)