COMMISKEY — Fear began to emerge on the faces of four Graham Creek Elementary School kindergartners as they watched classmate Kandence Collinsworth have her teeth professionally cleaned during a mobile dentistry program at the school Wednesday.
“I don’t like pain,” 6-year-old Kirsten Johnson confided, as she nervously observed her friend squealing and squirming in a portable dental chair.
But when Kandence, the first student to undergo a dental exam at the grade school near Commiskey, stood up with a huge grin, the fear began to subside.
“You’ve got to try that tickle brush,” Kandence enthusiastically told her young peers. “It makes you laugh.”
That remark prompted Kirsten to quickly change her attitude and leap into the dental chair so she could be next.
“Nobody wants to be the first, but after a friend goes, it’s all right,” school nurse Joanne Amis said. “I’ve had parents say they don’t know if their child will get in the chair, but they always do.”
The ability to use peers to alleviate fear is only one advantage provided by the Smiles Program, founded 18 years ago in the Detroit public schools. Since then, the mobile dentistry program has grown to 13 other states, including Indiana.
The program provides dental service to children most in need and with the least chance of accessing quality preventive dental care, according to information on the Smiles Program’s website. Dental decay is the most common chronic, infectious disease in children and more than 60 percent of all children do not see a dentist annually, the website said.
“A lot of kids who fear a dental environment will do well here because they feel safe,” said dental hygienist Gretchen Willkie. “You aren’t plucking them out of the familiar, and they are with their friends.”
Amis said what she appreciates most about the Smiles Program is that dental care doesn’t inconvenience families.
“The children are still here getting their education and the parents don’t have to miss work,” Amis said.
Many parents also appreciate that no child is denied service due to the family’s income, she added.
The Smile Program bills traditional third-party payers directly, including Medicaid and private insurance. When the parents have insufficient resources and do not qualify for insurance, they can choose either to pay a subsidized fee or seek available grants for the entire amount.
Due to programs such as Hoosier Healthwise, only four of the 31 Graham Creek students who received dental services Wednesday requested grants.
Instead, a number of Jennings County families chose to pay a fee of $57 that covered the dental screening, cleaning and fluoride. The same service is available to students 15 and older for $70.
The Smiles Program has five teams traveling through Indiana’s 354 public school districts.
While each team of one dentist and three dental hygienists are assigned a region, Willkie said her team has traveled all the way from Gary to Madison.
Until recently, the Smiles Program confined its services to diagnostic work. After sending the children off with a new toothbrush and sticker, the team would mail their findings to parents that outlined what the dentist felt needed to be done.
“Just in the last six months, we’ve created a team that will come in after us and do restorative work,” dental hygienist Mandy Schneider said. “So if a child needs fillings or extractions, they’ll come back in and do that.”
Willkie said the goal of the Smiles Program is to persuade children and their parents to see their own family dentist on a regular basis. But she admits that’s not always a course available to all Hoosiers.
“Medicaid programs aren’t available in every county, so getting dentists to accept government assistance is an issue,” Willkie said. “There are also small counties that don’t have any dentists, so we’re all they have.”
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