Imagine a colorful scene with delighted children giggling at a juggler, gaping at a magician, or standing oh-so-still for a face painter. You might think you’re observing a birthday party until you spot the Tooth Fairy and the Tooth Wizard handing out colorful goodie bags stocked with basic dental hygiene supplies. A disappointing party favor? Not for these children, explains Dr. Thomas Flavin, president of Give Kids A Smile (GKAS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing comprehensive dental care to underserved children. “Many of them have never been to a dentist before they attend our event,” he says. “They leave very excited and enthusiastic about taking care of their teeth.”
Give Kids A Smile began in 2000, when Flavin and a few other professionals recognized that basic dental care was not available to children from low-income families. “It’s a major concern for the 250,000 children in Missouri who live at or below the poverty level,” explains Flavin. “Tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease, and 70 percent of children from low-income families do not see a dentist every year. We knew we had to find a way to help these kids, and Dr. Ray Storm was the one who brought us all together. He was our first president, and quite a visionary.” In 2002 the first clinic was held in an unused dentist’s office downtown, and Give Kids A Smile now provides comprehensive treatment to children twice a year at the Center for Advanced Dental Education at Saint Louis University.
Each clinic has its own theme and the entire volunteer committee contributes ideas to make the clinics fun and exciting. “We’ve had a rodeo theme, a day at the zoo, dinosaur day and a Mardi Gras,” says Flavin, “And of course, the next clinic in October will be all about Halloween. The emphasis on fun reassures even the most apprehensive patients.” The Tooth Fairy and other costumed characters are professional actors who volunteer their time, says Flavin. “We couldn’t do this without our dedicated volunteers and fantastic support from organizations like Delta Dental, the Daughters of Charity, the Emerson Foundation, and so many others who have supported our mission.”
The American Dental Association was so impressed with the success of GKAS, it developed a national program based on the St. Louis model. “The ADA program serves over a million children every year. We are extremely proud to know that our organization was the inspiration for that success,” comments Flavin.
Many of the children who come to GKAS need comprehensive care that can’t be completed during their appointment at the clinic event, and ‘Smile Factories’ were established to address this need, Flavin explains. “That’s a very important part of what we do. So often these children have so much decay and infection that we can’t take care of it in a single visit,” he says. “The Smile Factory candidates are evaluated and the children with the most urgent need are referred to professionals in private dental offices who have volunteered to complete the treatment of a GKAS patient.” After completion of treatment, the patient’s records are returned to the GKAS office for record keeping and follow-up, Flavin adds.
GKAS has served nearly 9,000 elementary school children throughout the St Louis area since 2002, according to Flavin, and in 2007 the organization launched the first ‘Tiny Smiles’ clinic to serve the dental needs of children under 5 years of age. “By collaborating with other medical professionals, our Tiny Smiles clinic has also been able to provide hearing tests, wellness assessments and nutritional counseling for these children and their families.”