Durham Head Start children receive free dental care for Give Kids a Smile Day

One by one, the 42 children from the Durham Head Start program left their appointments smiling and walked into the waiting room to reunite with their friends. To top off a morning full of positive energy and warm spiritedness, the dental students formed an aisle for the kids to run through as they whooped and cheered, congratulating them on a successful, painless visit to the dentist. (Photo by Tenley Garrett)

Nobody likes a visit to the dentist’s office. That’s a stereotype that dental students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill decided to undo by inviting over 100 Durham-based children between 3 and 4 years of age to its fifth annual Give Kids a Smile Day event on Friday, Feb. 2.

Partnered with the Durham Head Start program, which provides basic care and educational opportunity to over 300 Pre-K children in Durham, the UNC School of Dentistry prepared on Friday to give care to 160 children– but, due to unforeseen transportation blocks, only 42 were able to join the event. Despite the drop in numbers, those who arrived safely in the morning left that afternoon with beaming smiles on their faces.

“We have all of our classes and clinics canceled for the day so that we can coordinate and work together for this event,” said Jaehee Yoo, a third-year dental student and one of the co-chairs of the event. “We want to let kids know that we are here and we’re friendly, and they don’t have to fear the dentist at all.”

The forty-two Durham Head Start children were welcomed with smiles, laughter and adventure as some dental students treated their patients’ seats as a space shuttle, shifting the controls up and down while simulating a space-time experience: “Ready? One, two, three– and take-off!” (Photo by Tenley Garrett)


The event featured an arts and crafts area; a nutrition education workshop that taught children about differences between sugary candies and ABC vitamins; a play corner where children used giant toothbrushes to brush the big smiles of stuffed animals; upbeat pop music for children to dance to; and of course, a dental clinic upstairs where children would receive their oral exams and get a basic teeth cleaning.

Amidst the arts and crafts fair two floors below the dental action taking place upstairs, to their delight, children were greeted by a mild-mannered 6-month old Golden Retriever puppy. (Photo by Tenley Garrett)

Over 200 volunteers consisting of faculty, community dentists and dental residents were ready and waiting as the 42 children moved from the arts and crafts fair to dental care on the second and fourth floor of the Brauer Building on the campus of UNC. While the stations and setup mimicked a professional private clinic, there was plenty of cheer and good humor to greet the children as they took their seat in the dentist’s chair. Some dentists simulated a spaceship ‘liftoff’ as they shifted the seat up and down quickly, taking the patient for a ride; while others let children play with their tools and pretend to give themselves a cleaning.

A lead educator for the Durham Head Start program, Ladonna Cross, attended the Give Kids a Smile event for the second time.

“It’s fun, especially downstairs,” she said: “The kids really like the music, they were so excited. I think it’s nice, because some of them don’t get to go to the dentist, so they’re excited to come– not scared.”

UNC dental student Carolina Guerrero uses a fluoride solution to clean the teeth of Durham Head Start’s Nigel Dawkins, 4, as part of the complimentary oral assessment.


Though the event was dedicated to pediatric dental care, a couple of parents tagged along for the afternoon’s festivities. Antonio Cates, a recipient of UNC’s student-administered dental care for a few years now, came with his two 3-year-old twin children, Courtney and Antonio, to see what the event had to offer. His children are also in the DHS program, of which he speaks highly:

“Some people say it’s day care, but it’s better than day care. They learn a lot, they’re learning the ABC’s, sounds, learning a little bit of Spanish… It’s a great program.”

Antonio Cates’ daughter, Courtney, 3, gets a photo with one of the dental students dressed up as the Tooth Fairy. (Photo by Tenley Garrett)



When asked about the GKAS event, he seemed just as enthusiastic:

“I like them to be able to know about their teeth and understand the pros and cons of their mouth so when they get older, they won’t have to go through some of the things that older people go through.”

What kind of things do older people go through who haven’t kept up with their teeth, exactly?

“I’ve been going here for four years,” Cates said: “I’m coming back next month . . . People don’t realize that your teeth have so much to do with your health, and your overall health of your body. If your head is hurting or something, then your whole body can feel it.”

To Cates, the body should be treated holistically, with dental treatment regarded just as important as other forms of healthcare.

“It’s a big thing,” he said, “Even in regards to health insurance, you have to get dental and health insurance separate– it makes no sense, it’s hand-in-hand.”

Some children were handed dental tools and cleaning supplies to play with when they’d successfully passed their dental examinations.

The student-led Give Kids a Smile event aimed not only to give kids free dental treatment, but the tools and information to help them understand how critical oral hygiene is to maintaining overall health. This was the purpose expressed by Tiffany Brannan, Chief Communications and Marketing Officer in the Office of the Dean.

“It’s great, I’m with it,” said Cates, “I love keeping up on their teeth!”

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