SANFORD - A sign outside identified the Central Carolina Community College building as the Keller Health Sciences Building. But for one day, up on the second floor, it felt more like the county fairgrounds.
On one end of the long hallway, under a window overlooking the civic center, two rows of children were taking turns lobbing beanbags toward the target in a game called "cornhole." At the other end, across from an x-ray lab, another group was watching a movie and munching away at some healthy snacks. And in between, there was a room for face painting and another for games -- including a dental-themed station where the children got dressed up in medical garb and used oversized toothbrushes to scrub the teeth of three stuffed animals.
But what was really happening was far more important. In a large room lined with about 20 large cubicles, each one furnished with a dental chair and state-of-the-art equipment, all of the children received free dental care that could protect their teeth for years to come -- and enhance their overall health.
Give Kids a Smile is offered each year by the CCCC Dental Programs with Southern Smiles Pediatric Dentistry and Sanford Pediatric Dentistry, two local practices led by dentists with strong ties to the college. In fact, Dr. Ray Tseng of Southern Smiles Pediatric Dentistry has his name on the wall downstairs -- the dental clinic was named in honor of him and his wife, Tina -- and the dental programs, themselves, have been named after Dr. Antonio Braithwaite from Sanford Pediatric Dentistry.
The local initiative is part of a national event organized by the ADA Foundation, a philanthropic arm of the American Dental Association that created Give Kids a Smile in 2003 to provide free oral health services to underserved children. Since then, volunteer dentists and other dental professionals have helped more than 6 million children.
CCCC Dental Programs Department Chair Vicky Wesner, who led the outreach in Sanford, said the real purpose of Give Kids a Smile is to provide dental sealants to young children as soon as their permanent teeth come in. Sealing the tooth surface reduces the chance of tooth decay and may prevent more costly treatments, like root canals -- or even tooth loss -- later in life. Before they head to the dental clinic, children have their teeth x-rayed, and while they're in the chair, they also have their teeth examined, cleaned and treated with fluoride.
Outside the clinic, dental hygiene students and staff led groups through hallways decorated with monkey balloons and other safari-themed decorations, in and out of six stations. While the games seemed more like fun to the children, many had a serious point. As one group dressed up as dentists and played with model teeth, station leaders gave them tips on how to brush effectively and even quizzed them with questions like, "Do you know how many teeth grownups have?" (Just in case you're wondering, the correct answer is 32.)
Students attending Give Kids a Smile this year were first- through third-graders from Greenwood Elementary and screened before being selected to participate. Wesner said about 300 were seen at the school by a public health dental hygienist. About 150 of those could have benefitted from sealants and about 61 had their parents complete the forms needed to receive dental care.
Dr. Braithwaite, sporting a Batman shirt and bumble bee hat with antennae and two large beady eyes, said Give Kids a Smile is the first time many children see a dentist. Which raises the question: What kind of reaction do they have?
"It varies," he said while taking selfies with dental students before his first patients arrived on the bus. "Some are quite jubilant, some are nervous and everything in between, really and truly. Every child is different."
Oh, and does that bee hat help?
"Yes, it does," he said. "A lot of times, it does."
While the event is clearly focused on taking care of children, they're not the only ones who benefit from the event. College students studying dental hygiene and dental assisting get plenty of hands-on experience with children and parents save a lot of money.
Running some quick calculations soon after the final patient left, Wesner said that a total of 69 children received dental services -- most from Greenwood, but also a few walk-ins accepted later in the day. When you count all of the exams, cleanings, x-rays, fluoride treatments and sealants, then add it all up based on their usual and customary costs, the grand total comes to $25,386 worth of dental services provided free of charge.
That figure can sound pretty impressive, but Give Kids a Smile isn't really about dollars and cents. It's about what happens to people participating in the event.
Moments before the bus arrived and the safari began, Dr. Tseng walked into the dental clinic and took a few minutes to reflect on his experience with the annual event and what was about to happen.
"I'm looking forward to a bunch of happy, smiling faces," he said. "I'm looking forward to kids learning about dentistry in a way that's fun and exciting. I'm looking forward to our staff being able to give back to the community. I'm looking forward to students learning from people who are out in the real world. This is an event that gives us a lot of pleasure, because it has so many benefits for everyone involved."
Central Carolina Community College Dental Assisting and Dental Hygiene students place sealants on a student during Give Kids A Smile Day.
A student participates in the Dental playroom during Give Kids A Smile Day at Central Carolina Community College.
A student learns how to brush teeth using an oversized toothbrush and stuffed animal during Give Kids A Smile Day at Central Carolina Community College.
Central Carolina Community College Dental Programs Department Chair Vicky Wesner prepares Dental Programs students for the events of the day.
Central Carolina Community College Dental Hygiene and Dental Assisting students apply sealants to a student.
Dr. Antonio Braithwaite and a student both show a thumbs-up during Give Kids A Smile Day at Central Carolina Community College.