SANFORD - This had to be the greatest misdirection in history.
To be fair, when children from Deep River Elementary first filed off the school bus and snaked their way into Central Carolina Community College's academic center at the historic W.B. Wicker School, you could see the uncertainty on their faces. The line was oddly quiet, especially for a group of first- and second-graders.
But it didn't take long for the children to be separated into smaller groups. And that's when the fun began.
Before five minutes passed, one end of a long corridor was filled with children lobbing beanbags into squares taped onto the wooden floor. Every time any member of the two teams came even close, there were cheers, and if someone managed to arc one into the square, everyone erupted.
Behind the beanbag toss was another room buzzing with activity. Under a long window and behind a table, two college students were painting faces. One boy requested the spider design, a white web on his left cheek with a black spider clinging to the center. The girl next to him opted for a tiara on her forehead. And all around the face painting were tables full of children doing arts and crafts.
They were having so much fun, it was easy to forget that this field trip wasn't really about the face painting or crafts or games. Today is Give Kids a Smile, a dental clinic offered each year providing free care for children. At least for the moment, any apprehension they felt about seeing the dentist is a distant memory. And that's exactly what the organizers wanted.
Pictures and Puppets
Most of the activities had an obvious dental theme, and nowhere was that more evident than the radiology waiting room, where children played before climbing into the chair for x-rays. Today, this wasn't billed as a waiting room; it was a puppet show. Dressed in a white lab coat with dental loupes hanging around her neck, Danielle Bruner entertained children using a stuffed alligator with a perfect set of human teeth. An alligator who, oddly enough, knew precisely as much about teeth as Bruner -- who knows a lot, since she teaches dental hygiene and coordinates the college's clinic.
After the alligator with perfect teeth gave children tips on brushing, the patients -- I mean, the audience -- got their chance in the spotlight. One boy chose a purple hippo, another stuffed animal with an enviable set of pearly whites, and the hippo answered dental questions posed by Bruner until it was time for the child to have his pictures taken -- those "pictures" being the x-rays needed before heading to the clinic for treatment.
Bruner said the puppets' educational purpose, helping children embrace the importance of preventive dental care, is important. But so is the opportunity to reduce their anxiety about what may happen when the treatment begins. "We want to put them at ease, so they're not in fear of the dental experience," Bruner explained after the event concluded. "It dispels what they may have heard other people say about the dentist being scary. They know what to expect, so they'll have a great experience."
In the Clinic
Walking down the corridor, you might get the impression that Give Kids a Smile is an effortless operation. Everyone seems to be relaxed and having a great time, children and staffers alike, but that would be a mistake. Even before today, public health hygienists screened 225 children and recommended 161 for treatment. About 70 completed all of the needed forms and boarded the bus this morning for Sanford.
Then, there are least 65 college students involved in today's operation, most of them CCCC students studying dental hygiene, dental assisting, nursing and health information technology, with another who came down to help from the UNC School of Nursing in Chapel Hill.
There were dentists, too, a couple who work with the college dental curriculum and others from local practices who simply wanted to lend their expertise to a good cause. They were working behind a door marked "Suite 220E, Dental Hygiene Clinical Services." Or, for today, one of the six activity stations decorated with blue and gold, star-shaped balloons and simply billed as "clinic" -- the big room where children received a dental exam before hygienists cleaned their teeth, gave them a fluoride treatment and applied sealants.
Vicky Wesner, who serves as CCCC's department chair of dental programs and helped organize the event, says sealants are a common procedure where resin coatings are applied to the chewing surface of molars. The idea, she says, is to smooth over grooves and pits in the healthy tooth where cavities could develop.
In the clinic, over at Operatory 9, one of a dozen cubicles where treatments are taking place, Cherese Stocum and Ashley Davis are finishing with their first patient of the day. In all, they expect to see six students from Deep River School and maybe more children later this afternoon, when the clinic accepts a few walk-ins. Davis gives a big thumbs-up as her tiny patient jumps out of the chair, still wearing a stylish pair of dark sunglasses to protect her eyes from the bright operatory lights, and bounces toward the door.
As the child disappears into the hallway for more fun and games, a frenetic turnover begins in that section of the clinic, where the dental hygiene students break out wipes and a clear plastic bag to prepare the space for their next patient. As they continue, they talk about the treatment and give their first experience of the day a high grade. "Our patient was wonderful, the doctor said the sealants were perfectly placed and the treatment went really well," says Stocum. "Our patient was an angel."
About the time she finishes talking, everything is ready for the next patient. And before long, they're back at work again.
A Community Project
One of the dentists examining patients and consulting with hygienists is Dr. Ray Tseng, who operates Southern Smiles Pediatric Dentistry in Cameron. Dr. Ray, as he's called in his private practice, is a huge proponent of Give Kids a Smile. In fact, he's a member of the national advisory committee for this national program launched 15 years ago by the American Dental Association. Since the outreach was formed, according to numbers published by the ADA Foundation, more than 5.5 million children have received free oral health services.
Dr. Tseng believes this outreach is essential everywhere, including Lee County, where one public elementary school is selected each year to participate in Give Kids a Smile. He cites a number of reasons, including changes in the way pediatric health care is provided and a shifting environment where health insurance premiums are rising while coverage is dropping and many services are being cut.
Give Kids a Smile, he said, is often the first time in their lives many children see a dentist. And even if they have been examined before, it gets "a second set of eyes on their teeth to make sure everything is healthy." If there's a problem, children get the follow-up care they need.
"Our program at CCCC is on the leading edge of innovation," Dr. Tseng said. "Each child seen that had treatment needs was given a referral to a pediatric dentist. We have teachers and staff following up on those referrals with parents to make sure they get an appointment, and the practices that see these children will finish the needed treatment at low or no cost."
The statistics and lofty rhetoric don't matter much to the first- and second-graders already finished in the clinic and now watching Toy Story 3 in another room, while munching on raisins, cheese and apple slices -- a selection of healthy snacks chosen, by the way, for their contribution to good dental health.
They've probably forgotten all about the dental exam that seemed to generate plenty of apprehension just a couple of hours ago. Right now, they're just having fun watching Woody and Buzz Lightyear come to terms with their owner leaving for college.
And that's just as this was designed to be.
For information about Central Carolina Community College and its programs, visit its website, www.cccc.edu or call the college at 919-775-5401.
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