South Charlotte

Free dental program helps needy children

A bunch of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools kids now have something to smile about.

On Feb. 3, 130 students in grades kindergarten through 12 received free dental care, including cleanings, x-rays, fillings, sealants, nerve treatments, extractions and other treatments necessary to ensure a healthy mouth.

Some kids had extensive issues that couldn't be resolved in one visit and were scheduled for follow-up appointments that also will be free.

Junior League of Charlotte members, Communities in Schools personnel, UNC Charlotte pre-dental students, Delta Dental - a nonprofit dental insurance company - and dentists, hygienists and assistants from 14 dental offices throughout the county joined forces for Give Kids a Smile Day.

A program of the American Dental Association, Give Kids a Smile Day traditionally is held the first Friday in February. It's a chance for children with no dental insurance and low household income to receive dental care.

"These children have no other means of coming to the dentist. They don't have insurance, they don't have Medicaid. If not for this program, a lot of them would never see a dentist," said Gabriele Francisco, CIS site coordinator at McClintock Middle School.

Kasia Forster, chairwoman of children's health for Junior League of Charlotte, and other league members coordinated the event, with each student screened beforehand.

"Typically, Give Kids a Smile Day is an open clinic, but we wanted to make sure that the children we served could really benefit the most from these services," said Forster.

School nurses and dental hygienists from the Mecklenburg County Health Department helped select students with the most pressing issues.

Many of the students identified also were a part of Communities in Schools, a student support and drop-out prevention program working with students of all ages in 44 CMS schools. The group was involved arranging transportation and traveling with the students.

Delta Dental gave a $3,000 grant to the project, much of which was used for buses to transport students to and from the dentists.

Pediatric Dentistry of Matthews' Dr. Margaret Lochary signed up her peers to volunteer. "Everybody I called was just so nice and willing to help," said Lochary.

Students from UNCC's pre-dental program volunteered to help.

The children arrived at the various locations that morning and stayed until everyone was seen. They ate lunch in the waiting room - bag lunches filled with soft foods from their school cafeterias. UNCC students, Junior League volunteers and CIS personnel were at each location to help comfort, entertain and supervise the kids.

At Pediatric Dentistry of Matthews, Lochary, Dr. Scott Goodman and Dr. Jason Sperati saw 14 patients from Shamrock Gardens Elementary and McClintock Middle School.

All morning, treatment chairs were filled with children - some lying back with their mouths open, others perched on the edge of the chairs holding hands with their apprehensive friends.

Those children's acts of kindness touched dental assistant Sheila Williams. "It overwhelmed me how these kids came together and supported one another," said Williams. "They would hold each other's hands and comfort one another without even being asked.

"Some of them just met on the bus on the way over this morning. I don't know who their teachers or parents are, but they've done a great job of bringing them up."

Lochary, whose practice has participated in the program since it began 11 years ago, says it's a wonderful lesson in teamwork.

"This is truly a coalition of community agencies working together. It's all volunteer driven, and it's amazing to see how everyone comes together to make the day successful," said Lochary.

Molly Shaw, executive director of Communities in Schools, agreed: "Students got everything from routine cleanings to root canals, and it wouldn't have been possible without so many community partners working together to ensure that students are healthy so that they can learn and succeed and smile."

Lochary says dental issues can affect a child's education and health if left untreated. If a tooth hurts, they can't pay attention in school, and they can't sleep at night. If it's abscessed, it can cause serious complications, even requiring hospitalization.