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Southern California clinic believes Give Kids A Smile is year-round endeavor

Kids’ Community Dental Clinic serves underserved children from low-income families throughout Los Angeles area

July 09, 2020
 Kids Community Dental Clinic in Burback, California.
Give Kids A Smile: Nora Papayan, who is entering the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry at the University of Southern California this fall, volunteers as an educator at a local school on behalf of the Kids’ Community Dental Clinic. She has volunteered with the clinic for four years.`

Burbank, Calif.
Give Kids A Smile events are traditionally held across the country on the first Friday of February each year, providing essential oral health care and education to thousands of children in need.

Each and every GKAS program is a gift to the community, and one program in the northeastern end of the San Fernando Valley has dearly embraced the charitable mission of GKAS.

“Basically, we offer schools and nonprofit agencies a GKAS-type program year-round,” said Dale Gorman, executive director of the Kids’ Community Dental Clinic in Burbank, California.

Burbank and beyond

Throughout the school year, volunteer dentists and team members from around the region, on behalf of the clinic, visit schools — 117 in 2019 — to screen and educate young students on the importance of oral care, a hallmark of the ADA’s charitable Give Kids A Smile events.

The screenings also happen during the summer, when the clinic itself hosts nearly a dozen events that bring children from all over the Los Angeles metropolitan area for care.

“When children are screened and decay is found, an assigned health coordinator or school nurse, depending on the school district, contacts each parent to offer care,” said Ms. Gorman. “If they already have a dentist, they are encouraged to go see them. If not, they can come to the clinic for free or low-cost care. This is how children gain access to dentistry. It is our job to teach caries prevention and to retain them as patients throughout childhood as their dental home.”

Dr. Timothy Knox has been volunteering at the clinic since 1985, when the clinic was under the auspices of Saint Joseph’s Hospital (now the Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center).

“The idea behind the clinic at the time was that local dentists and hygienists would donate their time so children who could not afford dental care would be treated,” Dr. Knox said. “There was only one full-time staffer who coordinated the scheduling, operations and assisted chairside. I got involved because I saw the community need.”

Dr. Knox continued: “I continue to volunteer because the clinic has become a unique, thriving force in the community for meeting the needs of disadvantaged children. This simple two-chair clinic has grown to include nearly 50 volunteer dentists and hygienists.”

ADA institute kickstarts idea

The clinic had a long history of providing school screenings and education before Ms. Gorman started. When she read about the ADA GKAS Community Leadership Development Institute in 2012, Ms. Gorman encouraged her colleague, clinic dental programs administrator Ana Gomez, to attend, learn and come back with ideas.

“She did just that, and our program took off,” said Ms. Gorman.

Around the same time, the clinic began applying to the ADA for GKAS oral health care products for schools that they would visit during the February timeframe. Through the staff’s leadership and active advocacy, grant monies started coming in so that the clinic could sustain the GKAS spirit throughout the year, complete with goodie bags featuring Colgate toothbrushes and toothpaste for most of the children they would come in contact with over the course of the year.

Pandemic impact

Like every clinic in the country, though, the COVID-19 pandemic had a great impact. When California Gov. Gavin Newsom closed all but essential businesses, the clinic stayed open only for emergency visits for new and existing patients.

“In early March, when the pandemic began to rapidly spread, the Kids’ Community Dental Clinic’s volume of patients drastically dropped,” Ms. Gorman said. “Patients with rampant decay and who were just starting treatment had to be put on hold all these months. Our pediatric patients, a majority of whom are people of color, economically vulnerable and already at a higher risk for decay, face significant decay the longer they are unable to start or continue treatment.”

Because of the steep decrease in patients, the clinic had to furlough two-thirds of its staff. The clinic, which depends on the kindness of its volunteers, also realized that its volunteer dentists had to attend to their own immediate needs during the pandemic and recovery.

“We anticipate that our volunteer dentists who would normally perform treatments will be concentrating on their own private practice patients and office demands once the shelter-in-place orders are lifted,” Ms. Gorman said. “We expect an influx of patients needing treatment but an initial lack of availability of volunteer dentists.”

Fortunately, the clinic has developed strong partnerships with local colleges over the years, including the University of California, Los Angeles School of Dentistry, Pasadena City College and West Los Angeles College, with dental and hygienist students rotating into the clinic to help sustain the clinic’s admirable aims of offering GKAS-style events throughout the year once recovery is in full swing. All dental students are supervised by a licensed dentist.

“We believe the clinic’s outreach to homeless and low-income individuals will have an impact on students, and that partnerships with colleges and students is an important portion of the clinic’s impact on public health in Los Angeles County,” Ms. Gorman said.

“The clinic has been in the Burbank area about 50 years,” Ms. Gorman said. “We see the connection of oral health to overall health and are committed to teaching children to prevent tooth decay from the earliest ages. We try to reduce the incidents of emergency room visits for oral health issues. The Kids’ Community Dental Clinic is truly a safety net that accepts any child that needs the help.”

After all, kids need their smiles 365 days a year.