EAST COUNTY — Juan Garcia warned his younger sister.
When Juan, a 12-year-old student at McNeal Elementary, sat in the back of his father’s trailer on long treks from Decatur, Mich., to the Falkner Farms in Myakka City, he told tales of the dentist chair.
How, as his 7-year-old sister, Kimberly, recalls, the dentist, “puts something on your tongue, and if you touch it, you fall asleep.”
But Kimberly, at her first real dentist appointment, smiled a toothy grin and flicked her pink sandals to her side as a dental assistant prepared tools and analyzed X-rays as part of the “We Care” project Oct. 24, at Manatee Technical Institute.
Operating on grant money, the project partners MTI dental students, under the supervision of local dentists, with Manatee School District school nurses to provide free teeth cleaning, fluoride treatments and oral screening for uninsured, needy children.
Students from MTI, most of whom have only worked on the teeth of mannequins, perform the cleanings and X-rays, before a professional dentist takes a final look.
If a child needs further care, MTI and the nurses refer them to dentists who can help uninsured families with limited money.
“You have kids in here who don’t even want to eat they’re in so much pain,” said Kimberly Bland, the program director at MTI.
“It doesn’t help when friends tell the kids beforehand, ‘Oh, the dentist is painful,’ like we’re here to hurt them,” she says.
Many of the children, such as Kimberly, who had received minimal dental assistance before MTI stepped in, come from migrant farm working families who don’t have the means to receive dental help.
For some, the newness showed.
Four-year-old Maria Perez clutched a slime green, purple horned stuffed animal and fled to the outstretched arms of her mother, after Pete Masterson, a dentist at Lakewood Ranch Dental, revealed her clean bill of health.
“You guard against every possible reaction,” Masterson said. “You need to engage them and be personal. One good experience can set the stage for how they view the dentist forever.”
Meanwhile, Juan, who had received minimal dental coverage near his parents’ farm in Michigan a few years ago, insisted, “It’s not scary. I’ve been to the dentist before.”
On the other side of the exam room, Kimberly twisted her head, gripped a mirror and spied her brother.
“I can tell he is nervous,” Kimberly said. “His feet are shaking.”
Dental assistants performed work on Kimberly’s mouth, before offering her a cup of water.
When nurses unveiled her X-ray results, Kimberly yelped, “So, that’s why my teeth look like?”
Too young to help her parents pick cucumbers, she followed the crops from Michigan to Florida while her father balanced his trailer driver job, Kimberly says she spent time flossing and brushing her teeth four to five times a day.
The nurses who organized and screened students for “We Care” say she’s the exception.
Cheryl Stuart, a nurse at McNeal Elementary and Braden River Elementary, and Char McLain, a Buffalo Creek Middle School nurse, both call poor dental hygiene the No. 1 culprit for children missing a school day.
“If you have a toothache, you can’t focus and you can’t learn, so kids will just stay home,” McLain said.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].