Giving kids a smile

UIC College of Dentistry students Karen Homsi (left) and Maria Molnar teach youths how to brush their teeth properly during the annual Give Kids a Smile Day. (Photo: Chris Bevel)

About 50 students from St. Malachy School visited the College of Dentistry Feb. 8 for its Give Kids a Smile Day.

The annual event brings together students and faculty from the college with schools around Chicago to promote oral health education and provide free preventive exams to underserved communities.

“Oral health is an important part of overall health,” said Sahar Alrayyes, clinical associate professor and director of the pediatric clinic in the College of Dentistry. “If kids understand the basics about brushing, flossing and healthy diets, they are more likely to prevent cavities, early loss of teeth and gum disease — things that can cause pain and school absenteeism in the short term and impact their quality of life.”

Moein Azimi, aka “Mr. Molar,” demonstrates proper oral hygiene techniques at Give Kids a Smile Day. (Photo: Chris Bevel)

While nearly 37 percent of kids ages 2 to 8 have cavities, Alrayyes said the risk is higher in kids who live in low socioeconomic status neighborhoods, like those who attend St. Malachy.

The St. Malachy students, who are in kindergarten, second and sixth grades, rotated between educational presentations, activity stations and preventive exams.

Karen Homsi, a third-year dental student in a pediatric clinical rotation, is one of 12 students who helped provide preventive care — like cleanings and fluoride treatments — to kids during Give Kids a Smile Day.

“I have something that can help you,” Homsi said to a St. Malachy kindergarten student during a cleaning. “Remember the ‘Rules of Twos.’ Brush two times a day, for two minutes. Side to side, and don’t forget your tongue!”

Homsi said each kid is different.

“Some ask a lot of questions and some sit quietly until the exam is over, but I think they are all having fun because they are here with their friends and doing things that don’t normally happen at the dentist,” she said.

Sue Jolie, a kindergarten teacher from St. Malachy, said keeping things fun is what keeps her students interested.

“Yes, they are learning about dental health, but they are also getting their face painted — that gets them excited,” Jolie said, “and they get a kick out of interacting with the dentistry students, who are younger and more relatable than most dentists they’ve known.”

A fourth-year dentistry student known to the St. Malachy students as “Mr. Molar” entertained kids by dressing up as a tooth and carrying a novelty-sized toothbrush while teaching them about good brushing habits.

“We’re here to make it fun so that they are more likely to remember what they learned,” said Moein Azimi, aka Mr. Molar. Azimi, who lived in Iran until the age of 17, said he has seen firsthand what happens when preventive health is not a priority and dental care is “seen only as a luxury.”

“Preventive care is the best care,” Azimi said.

This is the 16th year the College of Dentistry has hosted Give Kids a Smile Day, a program of the American Dental Association Foundation that launched nationally in 2003 as a way for dentists to join with others in the community to provide dental services to underserved children.

“We want to do our part in reducing oral health disparities and we want to provide our students with the opportunity to give back, understand the issues around access to care, and gain valuable patient care experience,” Alrayyes said.