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Wanted: Volunteer dentists for uninsured children

Dentists Demi Kouzounas, Kathryn Horutz and Jeff Walawender shine a light on dental needs of children that otherwise would go untreated, but the coordinator at Bright Smiles said the volunteer-based dental clinic could use more help.10-10-dental-mug
"Bright Smiles is the last resource, it's kind of a safety net for those children," said Vaneesa Woodward, clinic coordinator. "We see it every day that children are in pain because of dental issues."
As an only resort for many families and often the only way children can escape tooth pain, the clinic is reaching out for more volunteer dentists.
"We could have more children an evening, right now we have quite a high demand, and I expect it to get higher during the school year with our hygienists in the school system with school-based dental clinics," Woodward said.
In its sixth year of operation, Bright Smiles provides care once a month, typically on the first Tuesday of the month, by appointment only. The clinic was formed in 2006 to treat uninsured children who were identified by hygienists in local school clinics. Formerly at 20 Portland St., in a homeless dental clinic, the program moved to 640 Brighton Ave., where Community Dental allows Bright Smiles to use the space.
A grant for $8,000 from Northeast Delta Dental allows the clinic to pay for a staff person and supplies.
"We're hoping to be able to serve more children by having more dentists volunteer and also the dentists that we have do it every month, we're in hopes of having some dentists who could fill in when they're unable to be there," Woodward said.
Dr. Kouzounas is an originator of the program. She responded to a "Just Take One" campaign where dentists in Greater Portland were asked to treat "just one" child for emergent care. She agreed to continue volunteering her services. She said it's been a delight to see the program grow.
"Taking care of kids is special anyway, and there's a need, because they don't fall into any particular system, if you will, these are kids who have no care at all, they have no dental home," said Dr. Kouzounas.
Some of the children are recent immigrants, and Dr. Kouzounas said it's remarkable to witness what a change in diet can do to their teeth.
"A lot of time these kids are coming from a completely different culture, eating our American food ... they come from an area where they basically eat their vegetables and their protein and don't have soda and don't have desserts, all the naughty things that we get to enjoy, and honestly within a year they may have two or three teeth that need to be removed," she said.
Bright Smiles typically serves young people from 18 months old up to 20 years old, if they're still in school.
Anyone interested in an appointment can call, but most referrals come through the children's oral health program and the school clinics, Maine Medical Center pediatric clinic and the Portland Community Health Center, Woodward said. Opportunity Alliance also provides referrals, she said.
When the campaign started six years ago, 150 children were on a waiting list, and the need hasn't waned, Woodward noted.
"We generally see between eight and 12 children in an evening, and they change, because once we've seen that child and assessed and done all of their issues, we won't see them again for six months or they may move and we won't see them again," Woodward explained.
In South Portland, oral surgery is provided, also on a volunteer basis with grant funding.
"We've just added a practice of oral surgeons that will do that one step more that we can't do at Bright Smiles," she said.
Bright Smiles is run through Portland’s Public Health and Human Services. For more information about Bright Smiles, call 541-6627.

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