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Helping kids smile

Juanita Patlan climbed up on the dentist sofa and stretched out her little legs. Her small fists pushed deeply into the pockets of her green sweatpants.

She knew what to expect from the men and women in white coats in a mobile dentist clinic parked at the Florida Aquarium on Monday.

"How old are you, honey?" asked Dr. Terry Buckenheimer, a South Tampa dentist.

At this point, Juanita, a third-grader at Cypress Creek Elementary, had endured several shots of novocaine. Cleaning instruments protruded from her mouth.

She held up two hands, showing nine fingers.

"All right, kiddo," Buckenheimer said leaning over her. "We have to stop this cycle of bad teeth."

For many poor children from southern Hillsborough, the mobile clinics offer the sole dental care they've ever received.

Dr. Richard Garza of Austin, Texas, started Christina's Smile Children's Dental Clinic in 1989 after 17 years of treating disadvantaged children. In 1992, Christina's Smile acquired a 48-foot mobile dental clinic to take to cities nationwide.

The clinic has been stopping in Tampa for 14 years. The past six, the clinic has worked exclusively with children from southern Hillsborough, brought together by the Redlands Christian Migrant Association.

Josie Gracia of RCMA organized the trip to the clinic parked outside the Florida Aquarium for 120 children from Wimauma and Ruskin. They visited Monday through Wednesday this week.

The Tampa dentists in the project give their services at no charge. They clean and pull teeth, fill cavities, take X-rays and provide reconstructive work.

"The change you see in a child with broken front teeth is amazing," Garza said inside the air-conditioned clinic. "Their smile returns, they walk taller, with their head up."

Many of the children have never seen a dentist.

"So many of these families are struggling to keep the rent paid and put food on the table that dental care is seen as a luxury," he said. "So many children end up living in pain."

In addition to the pain, the children can suffer serious health complications. Bacteria in the mouth can lead to heart problems. Some are malnourished because the pain in their mouths stops them from eating, he said.

Garza estimated the value of the dental care given in Tampa during the three days to be between $70,000 and $80,000. Nationwide, Christina's Smile gives away $1.2-million in care every year.

The nonprofit is funded through donations, the biggest from Roadway Express, whose employees raise $400,000 a year for the program and which transports the clinic around the country for free.

Each child who vists the clinic gets a free toothbrush and toothpaste to take home, along with a T-shirt that says "Healthier Smiles."

As one rotten baby tooth was being pulled and a cavity filled, Juanita also got a lesson from Dr. Buckenheimer on how to brush her teeth after meals, and especially after sweets.

She got up from the chair, her eyes a little watery, with a big smile.

"Thanks," she told Dr. Buckenheimer, and bolted for the trailer door.

Outside, she pulled the rotten baby tooth out of a box the dentists had given her and showed it off to all her friends.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 661-2441 or