Broadening Access to Dental Care for California Kids in Need


Eleven-year-old Yennyfer walked out of Santa Barbara’s Eastside Dental Clinic on Friday morning with a bright, healthy smile following her second-ever dentist appointment.

Yennyfer is one of nearly 60 kids who received free dental care this month as part of the Healthy Smiles program, coordinated by Direct Relief in collaboration with the Sunrise Rotary Club and a number of other Santa Barbara County organizations supporting the effort.

Access to pediatric dental care is important as oral disease is the most common chronic childhood disease and can lead to physical and psychological disabilities as well as significant morbidity in adulthood.

To help prevent this, 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 children like Yennyfer 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. Direct Relief annually holds the Healthy Smiles clinics during February, National Children’s Dental Health Month.

Susann Casort, clinic manager at Eastside Dental Clinic, said that the children who most often fall through the cracks are those who are undocumented. “Through no fault of their own, they don’t have coverage.”

To make sure these children and others who do not have insurance for different reasons can receive care through Healthy Smiles, 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.

“We have instances where there is a family with only one toothbrush that they’re all sharing. It’s helpful to be able to provide a whole kit to the kids when they leave,” said Casort.

Direct Relief regularly supports the Eastside Dental Clinic with these kits and other medicines and supplies to help them treat patients in need year-round.

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