Dental students volunteer to Give Kids A Smile

Give Kids A Smile is a national access to care initiative where dentists donate dental care to underserved children that are in desperate need of dental intervention.  But many of the Ohio Give Kids A Smile events have an added benefit: dental and auxiliary students gain real-life experience.

The Ohio State University College of Dentistry held a Give Kids A Smile event on Oct. 24 that brought together 21 faculty dentists, 173 dental students and 30 hygiene students.  Their combined efforts resulted in more than $22,000 in donated dental services (based on OSU College of Dentistry fees) for 138 children of all ages.  Services ranged from cleanings and fluoride treatments to extractions and crowns.

“It wasn’t about meeting dental school requirements or logging clinic accountability — it was simply about helping underserved children in need of dental work,” said Katie Seymour, an OSU dental student who served on the planning committee for the GKAS event. “Whether we filled a small cavity or simply provided a screening and oral hygiene instructions, students were helping to improve the oral health of these children for years to come.”

Dr. Erin Gross, OSU College of Dentistry professor, serves as the faculty advisor for the Give Kids A Smile event.  She cited that dedication and enthusiasm of the student leadership team is what makes their bi-annual events so successful. 

“They fundraise, request donations, advertise the event and recruit patients, train student participants, order and manage supplies and set up the registration and patient care areas.  Then they start planning the next event as soon as the previous event is finished,” she said.

Even though a dental program is four years of intensive education, Gross points to the Give Kids A Smile event as a way for students to learn what they cannot through classroom instruction. 

“What dental students learn at GKAS is that there are lots of children and families in our communities with truly limited means who don’t know where to turn when they need dental care.  We can tell them that, but it is something the students come to understand better when they see the number of people who come to our events and have the opportunity to talk to these kids, hear their stories, and learn more about their families,” Gross said. 

Becca Bartlett, OSU dental student and one of the lead organizers of the event, agrees that Give Kids A Smile presents a unique opportunity for students. 

“Events like Give Kids A Smile provide dental students with the opportunity to engage with a truly underserved population of patients, and feel what it is like to treat children who may not otherwise receive dental care,” she said.

Not only does the event give students the chance to practice skills they learn in the classroom and learn more about those in the community that need assistance, Bartlett believes that experience with volunteerism during dental school leads to dedication to service upon graduation. 

“For many students, the hands-on service experience of Give Kids A Smile changes the way they approach dental school, and inspires them to reach out to underserved populations upon graduation,” Bartlett said.  “I believe that volunteering as a dental student has the ability to light a fire for service and participation in similar activities as dentists.”

Seymour agrees.

“Participating in an event like Give Kids A Smile during dental school shows us that volunteerism can take a variety of forms,” Seymour said. “After graduation, you don’t have to organize an elaborate event or fundraise money – simply donating your time a few times a year at a free clinic or community event can go a long way!”

The OSU College of Dentistry holds two Give Kids A Smile events each year, which has helped more than 800 children receive dental care in the past six years.  But for those who are involved in the event, there are additional rewards. 

“I often have parents come up to me on the day of the event eternally grateful for what we are doing,” Bartlett said. “It is rewarding to not only be able to touch the lives of so many children and families, but also to have a hand in inspiring future dentists to aid in lowering the barriers to care for children and populations now and in years to come.”

The event at OSU is one of 11 Give Kids A Smile events that were held in 2015 in conjunction with dental and auxiliary programs.  Together, these events provided more than 1,000 children with over $200,000 in donated dental care. 

Dr. Sergio Nadler organizes an annual event for the Corydon Palmer Dental Society at the Choffin School of Accredited Dental Assisting. More than 30 dental assisting students worked with 12 volunteer dentists from the area to provide $20,000 of donated dental care to 112 children for the February 2015 event. 

Holding the event in conjunction with the assisting school allows dentists from the community to more easily get involved. 

“Not every dentist may have the space or staff to open their own office and hold a Give Kids A Smile event,” Nadler said. “This allows them to volunteer however long they can.  Dentists get the flexibility of being able to participate and not have to run the event themselves or ask their staff to volunteer as well.”

The event gives assisting students the opportunity to work with children as well as different dentists. 

“You can read about child behavior or different situations, but until you are confronted with something in particular, you don’t know how to deal with it,” he said.  “Different doctors deal with situations differently, so it gives the students a huge vantage point and it is an experience they can think back to when they are in a similar situation in the future.”

Give Kids A Smile events planned for 2016 will again help children receive the dental care they need while providing experiential learning to students.  Dentists across Ohio have already planned 75 Give Kids A Smile events for 2016, of which 14 will take place with the involvement of dental and auxiliary students. 

One of those events is the 2016 Give Kids A Smile Ohio Kickoff site, held at Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine on Feb. 5, 2016. 

“Give Kids A Smile Day is a celebration where there is a gathering of many dental society members and the four classes of dental students, pediatric residents and faculty working as a team to provide preventative and restorative dental care to some 400 children in Greater Cleveland,” said Dr. Ron Occhionero, associate dean for administration of CWRU School of Dental Medicine.  This team effort will result in more than $50,000 in donated dental care. 

The Give Kids A Smile Kickoff takes place during National Children’s Dental Health Month, celebrated annually in February.

“It is fitting that the kickoff this year is part of the Greater Cleveland Dental Society and CWRU School of Dental Medicine’s event,” Occhionero said.  “It brings the event back to Cleveland, the birthplace of National Children’s Dental Health Month.”