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Dental professionals volunteer to help give youngsters a bright smile in Willmar, Minn.

Dr. Michael Gardner, left, checks the teeth of Tyler Mealhouse, 11, during Give Kids a Smile. The program, hosted Friday by Rice Regional Dental Clinic, provided free dental screenings for children who might not otherwise have access to dental care. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Tyler Mealhouse opened wide as Dr. Michael Gardner and dental assistant Kim Moline applied sealant to his teeth. Gardner kept up a steady stream of reassuring conversation as he worked.

"This isn't so bad, is it?" he asked the 11-year-old. "Let's put this right on there and we'll go over the back of the tooth."

He joked: "You sure you don't want me to put a New England Patriots de-cal on that?"

The chairs and the waiting room at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic were full Friday afternoon for Give Kids a Smile, a one-day event organized by the dental clinic to provide free dental screenings for children who may not otherwise have access to dental care.

"It's going well. Patients are coming," said Dr. Linda Jackson, program director.

There's a demand. Jackson said there were 101 appointments this year, up from 68 last year. Patients ranged from toddlers to teens.

Care was provided by five volunteer dentists from the area, some of whom also brought their staff. Two dentistry students from the University of Minnesota volunteered as well.

"It's all at no charge," Jackson said. "We're doing screening exams. We're providing cleanings. We're providing fluorides and also sealants. I'm really pleased we're able to do this for the community."

For kids in need of more dental care than the volunteers could provide at a single visit, follow-up appointments were offered.

The exams were limited -- they didn't include X-rays or anything invasive -- but they're a start at what dental experts see as an important goal for kids: helping them develop good oral health habits that will serve them lifelong.

"It starts at the beginning," Jackson said. "If they can learn good dental health habits while they're younger, when their adult teeth come in they know how to care for them. That builds a foundation for being able to retain your teeth in adulthood."

Tooth decay is one of the most common chronic diseases among children and hits low-income children disproportionately harder. Poor families in rural areas often face extra barriers to good dental health, among them a shortage of dentists.

"We know there are a lot of underserved kids," said Gardner. "There's definitely a need."

One of Jackson's goals is to let these families know about the services at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic. The clinic, housed at Rice Memorial Hospital, targets children and adults in the region who are low-income or uninsured. It's also a rural training site for dentistry, dental hygiene and dental assistant students at the University of Minnesota.

The clinic is in its fifth year and word has been getting out. "We still have a lot of new patients trying to call and get in," Jackson said. But she has found that many others haven't heard yet.

"We want to make sure that patients who have not had access to care are able to get that," she said. "That's our ultimate goal -- that they seek care here as their dental home."

This is the second year the clinic has participated in Give Kids a Smile, a national project coordinated in Minnesota by the Minnesota Dental Association. More than 200 locations were involved this year in providing free dental care to 6,000 eligible children.

Grants and donations help support the program. Jackson said an extra small grant this year from the Kiwanis helped pay for some of the supplies such as dental sealants.

"It's a fun day -- fun to be with kids," said Nancy Hendrickson, a dental assistant who traveled from Montevideo with Dr. James Zenk to volunteer Friday at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic.

Nathan Zaffke of Moorhead, a fourth-year dental student saw six children in two hours -- a record for him, and good practice for when he completes training this spring and becomes a full-fledged dentist.

"It's really helping us get our speed up so we can be ready when we graduate," he said. Plus, "it's nice to give back to the community."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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