NEW PORT RICHEY — Zara Williams, a 7-year-old second-grader at Richey Elementary School, just paid her first visit to the dentist. And she enjoyed every moment.
Zara didn't even have to leave school to visit the dentist's office, which took the form of a bright colorful van parked on the Richey Elementary campus. The Smiles Care a Van came to the school Oct. 22. It featured air conditioning, two state-of-the-art dental exam rooms and a waiting room where kids can watch a cartoon movie or play with stuffed animals.
When her visit was complete, the smiling Zara was not presented with a bill.
"They flossed, cleaned and polished my teeth," Zara said. "I think the dentist is going to be cool."
The Smiles Care a Van, a joint project of the Florida Department of Health in Pasco County and Pasco County Schools, is a mobile unit designed to deliver preventative dental services to children in need in Pasco. This $350,000 van is intended to serve approximately 4,000 children at 25 Title I schools throughout Pasco.
"This is a great measure to provide students with the dental care they might not be getting at home," said Deanna Krautner, public information officer at the Florida Department of Health in Pasco County. "We're trying to reach as many students as possible."
The need is great. According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, tooth decay is the single most common chronic childhood disease.
"We've seen as many as 6,000 emergency room visits in recent months because of dental emergencies," Mike Napier, Pasco County health officer, said. "We realized that we need to focus on preventive care."
After securing a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration to cover the cost of the van and using health department funds to hire hygienists for the unit, the department and school district teamed up to offer the Smiles Care a Van at the schools serving the poorest children. Additionally, there is a full-service dental clinic at R.B. Cox Elementary School in Dade City.
Visiting one school per week, with parent volunteers on hand to escort students to and from class, the van will serve students who have parental permission to receive complimentary dental care.
"If kids come to school with toothaches and rotting teeth, they can't learn. They can't even eat," Superintendent Kurt Browning said. "Among the basic needs we have as people is health care. And once we've met those basic needs, the students can come to school and learn."
At Richey Elementary, Pasco health department dental manager Kim Poon and hygienists Carol Brinkley and Suzanne Crenshaw supervised the Smiles Care a Van and welcomed students into a friendly atmosphere for basic dental care services that included cleaning, sealing, polishing and flossing.
"Look at how pretty those teeth are," Brinkley praised second-grader Jeanice Civil, offering her and other students practical advice on home dental care and the choice of fluoride flavors. "You're a great patient."
According to second-grader Loralei Higgins, the Smiles Care a Van is a great service.
"My cleaning and polishing was cleansing and relaxing," said Loralei, 7, as she left the van with a spirited thumbs-up sign and a shiny smile.