At 13 years old, Alfredo de la Cruz, had never been to the dentist until Saturday.
Alfredo and dozens of other children from Santa Maria, Calif. received free dental care this weekend as part of the Healthy Smiles program, coordinated by Direct Relief in collaboration with a number of other Santa Barbara County organizations supporting the effort.
“I’ve seen a lot of kids who have never been to the dentist before. It’s been a wonderful thing to be able to help them,” said first-time volunteer Amy Gisclon, a part-time faculty member with the Allan Hancock College dental assisting program.
Oral disease is the most common pediatric disease and can lead to physical and psychological disabilities as well as significant morbidity in adulthood.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends a child have their first dental visit by age one, followed by a check-up every six months in order to prevent cavities and other dental problems.
However, many families cannot afford the cost of dental care, leaving many children like Alfredo without regular cleanings and check-ups.
The goal of Healthy Smiles is to screen, identify, treat, and educate these children to ensure that their current dental problems do not develop into more complex health conditions.
For this reason, Alfredo’s mother, Maria, said she was excited about the opportunity to make sure her son received care. “I don’t want my child to be suffering,” she said.
Though both she and her husband work nearly every day- getting up at 4 a.m. to pack broccoli and strawberries for a nearby agricultural producer – they cannot afford to pay for dental insurance. While her two younger daughters qualify for Denti-Cal, Alfredo does not because he was not born in the U.S.
“These are the children that fall through the cracks,” said Martha Angeles, who has directed Direct Relief’s Healthy Smiles program since it began in 1993 to address the needs of uninsured county children. She said the clinic is held annually during February, National Children’s Dental Health Month.
The process begins when nurses and family advocates at the local schools identify and screen children for need based on existing decay and lack of insurance. These advocates also help the students access follow up treatment after the clinic, if needed.
In addition to medical treatment, families receive bilingual oral health education when they arrive at the clinic, providing them the information they need to ensure proper care.
Each family also takes home a dental hygiene kit containing toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss, which were donated by many health care manufacturers to Direct Relief and packed by local volunteers.
Alfredo left Saturday’s clinic with more than a kit and new sealants and fillings. Now that he knows how important dental care is, he said he will make sure to brush his teeth every day from now on to maintain a healthy future.