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Care conquers distance in big sky country

Helena, Mont.—Here in Montana's capital city, each of Helena's 30 dentists participates in Give Kids A Smile and this year will donate treatment to about 450 children without access to dental care—up dramatically from last year's total of 180.

"We have 100 percent participation," said Dr. Kevin Rencher, Helena's only pediatric dentist. "Every dentist here is doing something to help low income kids in our city."

Today in Dr. Rencher's office, about 70 children received free care from him, Dr. Tim Ballweber, Dr. Jaden Erwin and Dr. Lacy Claeys.

Montana—a state known for its expansiveness—is the nation's fourth largest state, stretching out for 147,000 square miles. Yet it comes in 48th in population density, posing a logistics challenge for organizing GKAS programs.

"Due to the vastness of our state and the difficulty in transporting children to central locations for care, nearly all GKAS events are held in private dental offices and community health center public dental clinics across the state," said Mary McCue, executive director, Montana Dental Association. "Since 2003, Montana dentists have donated nearly $1 million worth of free dental care in a variety of locations, from cities to rural communities."

Many Montana dentists, including those in Helena, work closely with school nurses to help identify and screen children for GKAS events.

Helena's GKAS program, says Dr. Rencher, starts gearing up in the September prior to the event. By October, Helena program coordinator Melissa Engelbert is sending letters to local physicians, school nurses and day care providers to let them know about the February program, then meeting with school nurses to help them set up a screening process and provide them with dental education information.

In November, Ms. Engelbert touches base with local dentists to sign them up as volunteers. In December, volunteer dentists are assigned schools where they will conduct screenings and dental health education. Screenings are completed by mid-January.

Also in January, the Helena program publicizes its event through newspaper ads, television and radio spots and—new this year—a blast e-mail campaign. Parents can sign up their children for GKAS dental treatment up through Jan. 23.

Dentists can opt to treat GKAS kids in their offices anytime in February, not just on GKAS day.

"This gives them more flexibility," says Ms. Engelbert. "If they don't normally see patients on Fridays, they don't have to worry about bringing staff in an extra day. They can work patients into their schedule however they think is best."

The process also identifies children who are covered by Medicaid dental services—kids who don't qualify for GKAS treatment—and helps these families find their children a dental home at a local community health center dental clinic.

"This is such a great way to reach the community," said Dr. Rencher. "It's important for parents to realize the necessity for good oral health for their kids and it gives families who might not otherwise be able to afford it a chance to get their kids to a dentist once a year. It's important for dentists to get involved and help those in need in the community and it's a great opportunity for dentists to reach families with oral health education.

"But even more important," added Dr. Rencher, "GKAS gives the dental community an opportunity to show government agencies that dentistry is doing its part to help provide access to care, and now the ball is in their court to do more."

Helena school principals "love GKAS," he added. "One recently told me he's thankful that his kids won't have to miss school because of dental pain. We've been able to build a strong relationship with our community's schools. Putting dentists, school nurses, principals and the whole community together can really make a difference."