Six-year-old C.J. had a mouth filled with cavities. At school, he would hide his smile, keeping his mouth closed to avoid bullying. At home, he would only eat soft foods, fearful of the pain eating caused. His school nurse and pediatrician tried to get him to open his mouth, to see the severity of dental disease, but he would never open. He was terrified of extractions and any dental treatment at all.
In February 2023, that nervous 6-year-old walked through the doors to Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry, a participant in the ADA Foundation’s Give Kids A Smile program. He received an applause as he took X-rays, he danced in the halls as he entered the clinics, and he designed his very own sugar bug art. By the end of the day, with urgent treatment begun and a plan in place for comprehensive care, C.J. gave each of us a hug.
“When can I come back to the dentist?” he asked, his sick tooth packaged with care for the tooth fairy.
What is Give Kids A Smile?
Give Kids A Smile, the ADA Foundation’s signature access to care program, is a national program that began in 2003. The goal is to provide underserved children with free oral health care and help establish dental homes for children in need. According to the ADA Foundation, GKAS has grown to serve more than 300,000 children annually. GKAS events take place throughout the year, with the majority taking place in February during National Children’s Dental Health Month.
My experience with Give Kids A Smile
I began participating in GKAS as a dental student at Harvard School of Dental Medicine. With a passion for working with children and a focus on increasing access to care, I joined the planning committee for HSDM’s annual Give Kids A Smile event in 2016. The next year, I served as chair of this committee, helping the program grow in size and move toward interprofessional collaboration. We offered free dental care, physical exams and nutrition consults all in one building.
I knew instantly this was a program I would continue throughout my career, so I applied to attend the ADA Foundation GKAS Community Leadership Development Institute to become a national GKAS ambassador. In 2018, I flew to St. Louis, Missouri, where I took part in one of the largest GKAS events nationwide and learned directly from Jeff Dalin, D.D.S., co-founder of the St. Louis GKAS program. Upon returning to Boston, I used my knowledge to continue expanding Harvard’s GKAS event while also guiding others who wanted to start their own events.
Today, I am a board-certified pediatric dentist and interim pediatric dental residency program director at Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry. GKAS still remains the highlight of my year. Instead of doing the planning on my own, I work with a team of incredible young professionals, the aspiring pediatric dentists at Meharry. The students, including this year’s co-coordinators, Tamera Thomas and Joshua Delaney, share my vision of reaching increasing numbers of children in need. The program has grown on Meharry’s campus to treat nearly 200 children, and the entire school is involved (and decorated!). Last year, C.J. made a special impression on my heart, but there are so many children just like C.J. each year who are only able to see a dentist because of GKAS programs nationwide.
You can get involved, too
GKAS events can be large, like ours at Meharry and Harvard, or small, contained to a local dental office. Each event has a profound impact. Participation begins by registering your program on the national GKAS website, ADAFoundation.org/GKAS, where you can sign up to request free education and prevention materials from the program sponsors, Henry Schein and Colgate. You then recruit volunteers, publicize a free dental care day or work with a school to bring children to your office, and do what dentists do best: examine, clean and treat teeth.
If I think back on my dental career thus far, one event each year stands out from all the rest: Give Kids A Smile. The name captures every bit of this program. By making the dental setting fun and affordable, with the support of the ADA Foundation and many sponsors, we truly have the potential to gift children healthy smiles that were never before possible. We can truly make an impact.