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At Dental & Literacy Clinic, free books are another reason to smile

By Susan Shinn

Smart Start Rowan

There were no tears Wednesday morning at the Stories and Smiles Dental & Literacy Clinic.

Created by Smart Start Rowan, and funded by Rowan County United Way, the program combines dental care with free books for children who might not otherwise have access to either.

Some 20 children and their caregivers from Head Start in East Spencer on Wednesday visited the Rowan County Smile Center Dental Clinic — part of the Rowan County Health Department — for routine teeth cleanings and exams. Each child also received a developmentally appropriate book to take home, while caregivers were given the “prescription to read” from dental clinic staff. All dental assistants in the Smile Center are trained to implement the Reach Out and Read model, which is a national evidence-based early literacy program. All trained providers ensure that parents and caregivers are given tools and techniques to properly read to their children, so that all children develop a love of reading even before they enter school.

The books were provided by Smart Start Rowan and funded through United Way. Smart Start Rowan is a United Way Grantee Agency. Smart Start, which serves children from birth to age 5 throughout Rowan County, developed the Stories & Smiles program after a United Way needs assessment ranked medical and dental care accessibility and educational training and achievement as two top areas to address.

The children waiting their turn in the dental clinic lobby immediately gravitated toward the boxes of books. Amy Brown, Smart Start’s executive director, took time to page through a few books with A’Janae Alexander and Jada Henry while they waited for their teeth to be cleaned.

Children who live in high-need areas, and who do not have a dental home, are the program’s targeted population, Brown said. Smart Start Rowan will sponsor three other dental clinics in the coming months — one per quarter. Along with East Spencer, children from Gold Hill and Woodleaf will be seen at the clinic. Brown said Wednesday that five children from East Spencer are already on the waiting list for the next clinic, which will take place in November or December.

Natalie Bailey was one of the dental assistants who performed cleanings on Wednesday. The children would also receive X-rays and fluoride treatments and be encouraged to return if further treatment was needed, she said.

Brown said that because transportation is often an issue for the families, transportation is available for each clinic.

Nina Oliver, the Health Department’s director, said that 23 percent of Rowan County’s kindergartners were found to have cavities, compared with the state average of 17 percent.

“Partnering with Smart Start Rowan and the United Way helps us identify dental issues early,” she said, “especially when parents are involved in the children’s dental care.”

Although the dental portion of the program was first envisioned solely for fluoride treatment, Oliver said, Smart Start felt the need to expand the services for these clinics.

Oliver and Brown hope the clinic can be expanded to serve more children the next time it’s offered.

Shara Dearmon, who directs Head Start in East Spencer, said her parents were excited about the dental clinic. Families who move into the area, she said, often don’t have transportation, or aren’t aware of such services.

“We’re referring a lot of parents,” she said.

Tiesha Bennett brought her children, Lamareon Cagler, 4, and Latoria Cagler, 3, for their appointments.

It was Lamareon’s first time at the dentist, his mom said, although Latoria had been seen at a mobile dental clinic.

“My son was a little nervous because he had never come,” Bennett said. “But I told him his little sister had gone and she did a good job.”

Latoria sat quietly in the chair on Wednesday morning as Bailey cleaned her teeth. The dental assistant talked with the child the whole time and explained everything she was doing.

“I don’t have transportation,” Bennett said, “so my children were never able to come to a dental clinic. For them to have their teeth looked at is great. I’m so happy and grateful.”

United Way is proud to be a part of this program, according to Steve Fisher, who chairs the United Way board.

“The ability to read at grade level in the early years of elementary education is vital to the future success of a child,” Fisher said. “Smart Start’s partnership with the Rowan Health Department to introduce and encourage reading during this critical developmental period (while simultaneously addressing the dental hygiene deficiency among economically challenged children) is both innovative and profound. The Rowan County United Way is proud to have Smart Start as its partner in the battle for child literacy. Together, we can provide the children of Rowan County with the foundational blocks they need to achieve.”

For more information about the next Stories & Smiles clinic, call Smart Start Rowan at 704-630-9085.

 Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

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