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Dental students provide free dental care to low-income children

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Reagan Zahn, 2, receives her first dental checkup from her aunt, Katelyn Horan, on Friday, March 3, 2017, at the SIU Community Dental Center. Horan, a junior from New Lenox in the university’s dental hygiene program, treated her niece during “Give Kids a Smile Day,” an annual event coordinated by the Southern Illinois Dental Society and the Southern Illinois Dental Hygiene Society. Horan's sister, Melissa Zahn, traveled with Reagan from St. Louis to visit. “It’s nice for her first [dental checkup] that it’s family,” Zahn said. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

Reagan Zahn, 2, receives her first dental checkup from her aunt, Katelyn Horan, on Friday, March 3, 2017, at the SIU Community Dental Center. Horan, a junior from New Lenox in the university’s dental hygiene program, treated her niece during “Give Kids a Smile Day,” an annual event coordinated by the Southern Illinois Dental Society and the Southern Illinois Dental Hygiene Society. Horan's sister, Melissa Zahn, traveled with Reagan from St. Louis to visit. “It’s nice for her first [dental checkup] that it’s family,” Zahn said. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

Reagan Zahn, 2, receives her first dental checkup from her aunt, Katelyn Horan, on Friday, March 3, 2017, at the SIU Community Dental Center. Horan, a junior from New Lenox in the university’s dental hygiene program, treated her niece during “Give Kids a Smile Day,” an annual event coordinated by the Southern Illinois Dental Society and the Southern Illinois Dental Hygiene Society. Horan's sister, Melissa Zahn, traveled with Reagan from St. Louis to visit. “It’s nice for her first [dental checkup] that it’s family,” Zahn said. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)


Students in SIU’s dental hygiene program gave free checkups and cleanings to more than 240 kids Friday for “Give Kids a Smile Day.”

The service is offered once per year for children under age 16 who are without access to regular dental treatment. The annual event is a collaboration between the Southern Illinois Dental Society and the Southern Illinois Dental Hygiene Society, according to a press release.

Micah Ellis depends on a medical card distributed by the Department of Human Services to low-income families, but many clinics won’t take the insurance that comes with the card.

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“It gets super stressful,” Ellis said while her 18-month-old son, Karsyn, played with a toothbrush given to him by a hygienist. “We usually have to travel far to even go to the doctor.”

When Ellis was younger, her mother took her to the event with her twin brother to get their teeth cleaned. She said she thinks early exposure to the dentist made her a healthier adult.

“They just sealed a cavity on Karsyn’s tooth today,” Ellis said. “He’s on his way to getting healthy.”

When the program started in 2003, an average of 50 children were treated. In the past years, the program has since grown to treat almost 300 children annually. The 100 dental students volunteering usually stay from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. examining children’s teeth.

Jackie Blackburn, a junior in the university’s dental hygiene program from Laguna Hills, California, gives a checkup to Elias Brann on Friday, March 3, 2017, during “Give Kids a Smile Day” at the SIU Community Dental Center. The annual event was coordinated by the Southern Illinois Dental Society and the Southern Illinois Dental Hygiene Society. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

The university dental center treats children by appointment who don’t have insurance at discounted rates on a regular basis. The patients are treated by senior dental hygiene students, faculty dentists and volunteer dentists from the region.

The center also hosts similar events in the summer for adults and veterans to promote dental hygiene, said Jennifer Meyer, assistant instructor of dental health.

Meyer said the program started because the southern Illinois area “has a serious lack of dental insurance.”

“Some people spend $600 on a simple teeth-cleaning,” she said. “Here it’s free.”

Anna Radecki, a sophomore from Oswego studying dental hygiene, volunteered at the event for first time this year.

“It was intimidating at first, but so is the real world,” Radecki said.

Radecki said the event gives students like her the experience she needs for her career. She said many internships don’t have students working with younger kids, which “helps prepare you for the chaos kids bring.”

“My first patient ever was a 4-year-old,”  Radecki said while cleaning her station. “Not many people can say that.”

Reagan Zahn, 2, touches her aunt Katelyn Horan’s teeth after having her first dental checkup Friday, March 3, 2017, in the SIU Community Dental Center. Horan, a junior from New Lenox studying dental hygiene, treated her niece during “Give Kids a Smile Day,” an annual event coordinated by the Southern Illinois Dental Society and the Southern Illinois Dental Hygiene Society. Horan’s sister, Melissa Zahn, traveled with Reagan from St. Louis to visit. “It’s nice for her first [dental checkup] that it’s family,” Zahn said. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

Mercedes Choque, a junior from Chicago studying dental hygiene, brought her kids and husband from Chicago to take advantage of the free dental care.

Choque’s husband, Ramon Delgado, said the event highlights the importance of taking children to the dentist at an early age.

“It’s heartbreaking seeing your kids’ teeth being drilled on,” Delgado said while watching his two daughters brush a puppet’s teeth. “We’re here so that doesn’t happen.”

Staff writer Olivia Spiers can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @_spierso.

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