Share a Smile: Ensuring Children Get the Dental Care They Need During the Pandemic


Give Kids a Smile Day (GKAS) has been one of my favorite days since it was introduced in New Jersey in 2003. When COVID-19 started spreading across the country in the spring of 2020, we wondered how we would be able to provide free dental care. to children without creating super spreader events. Share a Smile (SAS) was developed to do just that!

In conjunction with the five dental hygiene programs of New Jersey and the New Jersey Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (NJAPD), a complementary program has been developed. A referral system grew out of the idea that current dental hygiene students should demonstrate competence in the treatment of children. NJAPD President Dr. Elisa Velazquez jumped at the chance to take charge of this pilot program. Stacy Onofrietti, PhD, MS, RDH, CHP, signed up to help with administrative tasks and data collection. All five dental hygiene programs in New Jersey were eager to participate.

Before COVID, I hosted big GKAS events with clowns, cartoonists, balloon animals, cartoon characters in costume, sighted puppies in training, and of course the tooth fairy. In the 15 years I hosted GKAS at Rowan College in Burlington County, we treated 2,308 children in 4,675 procedures for a total of $767,297 in donated dental services. The pandemic meant that we could no longer hold a large one-day event with volunteer dentists, hygienists, assistants, students and community members creating what I affectionately called organized chaos.

Visualizing how we could create a safe way to provide access to free dental care to children in need, I consulted with the pediatric community and we came up with an idea for collaboration: a small pilot program to test the concept. If it worked, we could use it to provide free care for children whose needs exceed what a day’s treatment at GKAS could provide.

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Share a Smile was created by recruiting pediatric dentists as volunteers. The NJAPD was able to recruit members from nearly every county in New Jersey. The five dental hygiene programs asked dentists who had volunteered at their schools at previous GKAS events if they would like to be included. A Google Doc of volunteer dentists for hygiene programs became the modus operandi for referrals. A total of 28 dentists agreed to accept referrals for children in need of dental care from New Jersey’s dental hygiene programs.

All children seen by dental hygiene students during regular clinic hours who required treatment beyond what could be provided by the students were referred to a dentist from the SAS database . Children received prophylaxis, X-rays, sealants as needed, and fluoride treatment, which could include silver diamine fluoride. At the end of the hygiene appointment, the parent or guardian received a list of potential dental practices to complete the child’s treatment free of charge. An appointment was made by the program receptionist on the spot and noted in the Google doc database.

The best results from our outcome survey were that 100% of our participating hygiene programs expressed a desire to continue the program. All participants agreed that the pandemic was having a negative impact on the number of children treated, but responded that the SAS program would help find dental centers for children and should be expanded.

The actual survey results reflect a slight increase in the average number of children participating in the program (Table 1). This can be attributed to the expansion of the program from a one-day occasion to a 15-week, semester-long event. In order to maintain a safe distance and lower interior capacity limits, SAS was spread out over the semester.

I believe the low referral rates reflect the participating school’s preference for dentists who had previously volunteered at their facilities rather than assigning children to practitioners they did not know. Many of these practitioners had participated in traditional GKAS activities by opening their offices rather than attending an event. While SAS volunteers came from many parts of the state, few were located in the southernmost areas of our dental hygiene programs. One of our expansion goals is to actively engage pediatric practices near hygiene programs.

In the future, Share a Smile may expand and be used as a complement to the traditional Give Kids A Smile day. At past events, several pediatric dentists have told parents, “If you bring your child to my office, I will complete their treatment for free. I can’t take it anymore today. Wouldn’t it be nice if any GKAS patient who needed dental care requiring more than one visit could have their dental disease treated? SAS might be just the ticket to fill that need.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the February 2022 print edition of HDR magazine.


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