For children, poor oral health can spark harmful consequences that may affect the entire course of their lives—from pain that impairs concentration in school to discolored teeth that might impact their confidence.
Since 2003, UTHealth School of Dentistry has teamed up with the Greater Houston Dental Society to offer Give Kids A Smile, a day of free oral care for underserved children in the community. Community partners identify schools with significant dental needs, and the School of Dentistry’s Mobile Dental Van visits the schools to assess children and determine what care they will need before they arrive at Give Kids A Smile.
With support from philanthropic partners including Delta Dental Community Care Foundation, third- and fourth-year dental students, pediatric residents, second-year dental hygiene students, and faculty come together to help the event succeed. Students work under resident and faculty supervision, while volunteer dental professionals from across Houston participate as well. Care includes preventive treatments, simple extractions, and limited restorative procedures as well as dental education to show children how to start a lifetime of healthy habits.
“We can’t fix every problem that day, but to make a tangible difference for a child and even bring awareness to parents who may have put dentistry on the back burner—it’s a rewarding experience,” says Chelsea Wehr, DDS, a second-year resident in the school’s Advanced Education in Pediatric Dentistry Program.
Since the program’s inception, Give Kids a Smile has served more than 2,600 children. In 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic began rapidly spreading worldwide around February—when Give Kids A Smile normally occurs—forcing the event to be paused through 2021.
“We were disappointed to not be able to have it because it does so much for the kids, and our residents really enjoy the experience,” says Bhavini Acharya, BDS.” But given how little we knew about the virus then, canceling the event was really the only choice.”
The school was still able to identify a number of children and adolescents with specific needs who later came to its on-site clinic for treatment. Looking to the future, School of Dentistry administration are planning for Give Kids A Smile to resume in the spring of 2022 pending developments surrounding COVID-19.
Crowdfunding campaign helps mobile dental clinic drive forward
Sometimes, distance can prove the greatest barrier to quality oral health care, which makes the Mobile Dental Van at the School of Dentistry so important.
This specialized vehicle—a clinic on wheels—has been in service since 2002, traveling more than 100,000 miles to care for thousands of low-income patients in the Greater Houston area and East Texas.
Many of the patients lack insurance and reliable transportation to clinics, leaving them at risk of dental disease and other complications without proper care. Students from the School of Dentistry staff the van under supervision of the clinical faculty coordinator, providing oral health care such as screenings, preventive and restorative dentistry, and education.
Almost two decades later, the vehicle is reaching the end of its service life, and maintenance costs have grown prohibitively expensive with some parts no longer available. Community supporters—including a lead commitment from the TLL Temple Foundation—provided critical contributions to purchase and fully outfit a new vehicle.
With a few gifts still needed to reach the fundraising goal for the new van, UTHealth launched a crowdfunding campaign, which relies on the collective power of a large number of small gifts to make a sizeable contribution. The campaign concluded successfully in December 2020 with 62 donors.
“The Mobile Dental Van not only gives students valuable clinical experience, but it shows them firsthand the importance of giving back to others,” says Margo Melchor, EdD, RDH, Director of Community Outreach for the School of Dentistry. “Serving the community has always been a central aspect of our mission at the school, and this vehicle plays a key role in making that possible.”
“Time and again, our donors have made it possible for us to continue helping those in need,” she says. “Through their giving, we are doing something together that will make a lifetime of difference for the patients we serve.”