DOVER — She sees rotten teeth all the time.
But Nora McClendon is no dentist. She's a school nurse.
"We're usually the first stop," said McClendon, who works for Hillsborough county schools. "And sometimes there's not a whole lot we can do."
She hopes that a push in the county to expand dental care access to children will help bring change.
McClendon and other school officials, along with county and state leaders, gathered Wednesday in Dover at the Tom Lee Community Health Center to launch a program that will offer free mobile dental services for children who live below the federal poverty line.
Set to begin this fall at locations yet to be determined, the program includes screenings, orals exams, cleanings, fluoride treatments and sealants for second- and seventh-graders who live in southern and eastern Hillsborough. With the help of school referrals and the use of county-owned sites, doctors and hygienists from the government-funded Suncoast Community Health Centers will set up and man portable dental sites in the region.
The free program mirrors efforts in Tampa and north Hillsborough by the Tampa Family Health Centers, another collection of federally funded health centers, to reach a wider range of clients, including children.
Previously, only 3- to 5-year-olds in Head Start had access to the free portable dental care from Suncoast Health, officials said. Last year, the group received a $212,000 grant from the federal government that made it possible to purchase the mobile equipment and expand the program.
Suncoast Health also will partner with More Health, a nonprofit based in Tampa to educate and provide sealants for minority children across the county. More Health received a $123,00 grant to help with the effort.
"Dental care is a huge need in the community," said Brantz Roszel, chief executive of Suncoast Health. "By partnering with as many groups as we can, we will be able to crack the ice and access the communities."
Half of the county's 141,100 children living below the federal poverty level have tooth decay, according to state statistics from 2005, the most recent year available.
"There are children out there in chronic pain," said Dr. Ervin Cerveny, a dentist with Suncoast Health. "I see rampant decay, abscesses, you name it. It can weaken the immune system and make them prone to other infections."
Lack of access to dental care is mostly to blame, Cerveny said. Most families he sees don't have dental insurance or can't afford the expensive treatments.
In the next year, Cerveny said he hopes to reach 3,500 children in his region.
Meanwhile, Tampa Family Health expects to increase its client base from 6,000 to 15,000 children and adults. The group received a $328,700 grant this year, made up of a mix of state, federal and county dollars, to strengthen its dental program, the program's administrators said.
With a pediatric dentist on staff, and a 40-foot dental bus that makes stops at Head Start locations, schools and a growing list of other sites, Tampa Family Health also hopes to promote prevention in children.
That's No. 1 on Nora McClendon's list. She thinks it's the only way to help children keep healthy teeth.
"There's not enough preventative care, and it's because there's not enough access," she said. "We're excited to see this happening, and hope that it continues to grow."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2454.