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When Margo Y. Melchor, EdD, RDH, sees a little girl in a dental chair, she sees herself. Growing up in a family that lacked dental insurance for a number of years, her parents brought her to UTHealth School of Dentistry for her first appointment at age five. Now as the school’s Director of Community Outreach, she oversees the same community-focused care that set her on the path to a career in oral health. “I feel like I’ve come full circle,” Melchor says.

That community outreach at the School of Dentistry, in partnership with the Greater Houston Dental Society, has found one of its most visible expressions in Give Kids a Smile, an annual event that provides free preventive and limited dental services along with education to children from low-income, uninsured families.

“Many of these children have probably not visited a dental office,” says Melchor. “That’s usually due to barriers such as transportation, parents who work several jobs and can’t take time off, lack of insurance, or language barriers.”

Held at the School of Dentistry, Give Kids a Smile serves approximately 300 children each year. Community partners are asked to identify schools or organizations with significant dental needs. Faculty and students from the School of Dentistry’s mobile dental van team visit those schools to determine what care the children will need when they arrive at Give Kids a Smile.

On the day of the event, an army of volunteers including dental and dental hygiene students, residents, faculty, and local dental professionals such as members of the Greater Houston Dental Society ensure each child receives individualized attention.

Faculty supervise the students who, guided by pediatric residents, provide a range of care including cleanings, fillings, fluoride treatments, and simple tooth extractions.

“It gives the students an opportunity to become better acquainted with managing children, especially how to calm them if they are afraid,” explains Melchor. “It also may spark an interest for the students to go into pediatric dentistry or public health.”

Chelsea Wehr, a first-year resident at the School of Dentistry, volunteered with Give Kids a Smile in 2018 and 2019. She helped treat the most fearful children, whose perceptions of dentists may only have come from what others told them.

“We have an opportunity to give them a really good experience and change their minds,” she says. “That’s my favorite part of the job.”

Many of the children served come from families that do not understand how to maintain oral health; Melchor says parents will often put babies to bed after a bottle of milk or juice, which leaves sugar that could eat away at their teeth. Once decay sets in, it can have consequences that reverberate into the future.

“Studies show that dental pain is a big contributing factor for children missing school,” she says. “When children are in pain, they can’t study well, they can’t think well, and they miss out in learning.”

Melchor views Give Kids a Smile as a critical opportunity to teach children and parents the importance of practicing oral health at home; no matter how much care children receive at the School of Dentistry, only good brushing and eating habits will have a lasting effect. She hopes children will leave the school, as she did, with good memories and a foundation for a lifetime of oral health.

“I love seeing their smiles, the way they come out high-fiving the dental students,” she says. “Just to know that these children had a positive experience is a great reward.”

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