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Volunteers, Rice Regional Dental Clinic team up to help

Dental hygienist Renee Johnson, left, examines Najma Ismael as Najma's sisters, Yasmin, second from left, and Safi, watch Friday at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic. Najma is being held by her father Omor Ismael. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Yasmin Ismael wore a wide, gap-toothed smile as she climbed out of the dentist's chair.

Out in the waiting room at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic, half a dozen other youngsters fidgeted or sat quietly, waiting for their turn in the chair.

Nearly 90 children from low-income households had a chance Friday to have their teeth examined and cleaned by staff and volunteers at the regional dental clinic. The cost? Free of charge.

It was the first time the Rice Regional Dental Clinic participated in the American Dental Association's annual "Give Kids a Smile" Day, and Dr. Linda Jackson, director of the dental clinic, hopes it will become an annual event.

"It's just been very successful," she said. "We've had an overwhelming turnout."

Research has increasingly linked oral health with overall health. But many poor families, especially children, are underserved when it comes to dental care -- either because they can't afford it, can't find a dentist to see them or both. The problem is compounded in rural and urban neighborhoods where there's an overall shortage of dentists.

Give Kids a Smile, sponsored by the American Dental Association, will reach an estimated 400,000 children nationally this year.

Although it's a one-time annual event, organizers hope that at the very least, it can help give kids a lifelong foundation for taking good care of their teeth.

"You need to teach good lessons early. You don't want to go down that path of decay and loss," said Brian Peters, a fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry and one of the student volunteers helping the Rice Regional Dental Clinic on Friday.

"It's just a good day to see a lot of people that don't have regular access to dental care," Peters said during a breather between patients.

The prevention also is important, Jackson said. "If we can catch the problems before they become worse, it's going to be a lot easier for them to come back and not be afraid of the dentist. It's going to cost less too."

Access to dental care is not a new issue for the Rice Regional Dental Clinic. Established three years ago as a partnership with the University of Minnesota, the clinic on the third floor of Rice Memorial Hospital functions both as a rural hands-on training site for dentistry and dental hygiene students and also as a source of dental care for the region's underserved population.

Although demand for the clinic's services consistently runs high in the 17 southwestern Minnesota counties it serves, Jackson knows there are still many people who aren't aware the clinic exists.

Many of the children at Give Kids a Smile were new to the clinic, she said. "There are still quite a few people that don't know we're here and available. So this is nice that we're getting that exposure. We're here for the community."

All eight chairs were kept constantly busy Friday afternoon. In addition to the students doing their clinical rotation, the dental clinic staff plus two community dentists and several hygienists and dental assistants from local practices volunteered for the event.

One dentist sent his entire staff, Jackson said. "We couldn't have done this event without the help from the community."

"It took quite a bit of organizing. Being it's our first year, we're still learning as we go," said Marilyn Bolin, a dental hygiene instructor at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic.

But it was going smoothly, she said. "We have had lots of excitement. There've been just a few tears but most have been having a very good time."

For the students in the clinic's training program, it's especially beneficial for them to be part of a community project, Bolin said. "It's really good for them to know there's a need in west central Minnesota for dental providers."

Peters was volunteering for Give Kids a Smile in Willmar on Friday and at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities today.

"It's giving back to the community," he said. "We try to make as positive as we can for everybody."

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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