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Home Alumni Alumni News Vulnerable youth find their smiles at SAIT

Vulnerable youth find their smiles at SAIT

Cody Temple’s mouth is swollen and numb, but he’s still smiling.

“The drill is the worst part, but I don’t mind the needle,” he says, his grin cockeyed from dental freezing. He’s just finished getting a couple of fillings and a flush of relief seems to be making him philosophical. “I broke my arm once, so if I can handle that, I can handle needles.”

The next thing 11-year-old Cody needs to handle is a cleaning. “It’s no big deal,” he says magnanimously as he sits in the waiting room before his second dental appointment of the morning. His mother, Robin Temple, brushes an errant lock of red hair away from his glasses and smiles. “I bribed him,” she says, weighing in on the real reason for Cody’s good humour. “We’re stopping to get a toy on the way home.”

The toy is an extra expense for Robin, who has to watch her spending carefully. With the high cost of living in Calgary, her family just gets by each month, she says. But today, knowing there will be no bill at the end of this dental visit, she feels free to indulge her son a little.

Cody is one of 39 Calgary children whose mouths are healthier after attending a SMILES Dental Clinic at SAIT last March, where kids from economically vulnerable Calgary families received free restorative and preventative dental care. The clinic, which was launched by The Alex Community Health Centre, a Calgary non-profit agency, saw SAIT students, staff and alumni working with volunteer dental professionals, with volunteer dentists, and with Alex staff to provide care in the SAIT Dental Clinic. This collaboration was the first of three such clinics at SAIT this spring, providing much-needed free dental care to children and valuable chair-side experience for SAIT students.

Alex Dental Health Bus

Like many of the families who attended the March SMILES Dental Clinic, Cody and his mom learned about the service after The Alex Dental Health Bus visited Cody’s school. The oral care bus travels to high-needs schools across the city, providing preventative dental care to kids whose families can’t afford costly private care. The program is the first of its kind in Western Canada.

“When I started the program, I assumed I’d be working with very low income people, but they can access government services for dental care,” says Denise Kokaram, the founder and program lead for the Dental Health Bus. “It’s the working poor who are falling through the cracks…. They don’t qualify to use an Alberta Health Services dental clinic because they make just over the limit.”

In 2014 alone, The Alex Dental Health Bus visited 31 schools, identified high-need locations and provided preventative services including exams, cleanings, sealants and education to nearly 1,200 kids.

It didn’t take the oral health team long before they realized preventative services alone weren’t enough, says Kokaram.

“We found a 54 per cent decay rate among the kids we worked with last year,” she says. “It was one thing for us to come in and do preventative work with those kids and find out that they needed restorative work. The second piece became, ‘Where do they go once this decay has been identified?’ That’s when the SMILES Dental Clinic was born.”

An Ideal Site for SMILES

When the Alex Dental Bus needed clinic facilities, the School of Health and Public Safety offered SAIT's Dental Clinic.

It's 9 a.m. on this chilly Sunday in March and hygienist Shannon Hawryluk (DA ‘95) is setting up her operatory in the SAIT Dental Clinic. Although she practiced in this facility during her days as a SAIT student, Hawryluk is hustling to reacquaint herself with the workspace before the morning’s patients arrive. “Once I get a patient seated in my chair, I’ll get into the groove of what I do,” she says.

Hawryluk’s chair is one of 18 in this clinic, which is typically used by SAIT students honing their dental assisting skills — first on mannequins and then on live patients who come to SAIT for low-cost cleanings and X-rays. Since these operatories usually go unused on weekends, and because the campus is easy to reach via C-train, SAIT offers an ideal site for the SMILES Dental Clinics.

Today the clinic is buzzing with dental assisting students, SAIT staff, dentists and dental hygienists like Hawryluk who’ve given up their usual Sunday routines in exchange for the chance to give back at the first full-fledged SMILES Dental Clinic to be held at SAIT.

Down the hall from Hawryluk, student Tara MacIntosh is already busy as a radiography assistant, helping her instructor move through the first of 39 patients receiving X-rays this morning. It’s a challenge just to try to keep up, she says, but she’s glad for the opportunity. “You get a lot of experience in a short period of time because you’re learning on the fly,” says MacIntosh. “We’re kind of thrown into the middle of it and we just have to jump in and help where we can. It’s really good for teaching you to think on your feet.”

Back in November, staff from SAIT and The Alex conducted a test run of the SMILES clinic at SAIT, but without students. “We always knew SAIT was going to be a good fit in terms of the facility we have to offer,” says Carmen Sheridan (DA ’95), Academic Chair for the Health Information and Practice Assistants portfolio in SAIT’s School of Health and Public Safety. “But we needed to do the trial clinic to learn how to integrate students into a busy environment, making it safe for patients and a valuable learning experience for students. It worked.”

Community Connection

Learning opportunities are at the heart of SAIT’s partnership with The Alex, which began last fall with students taking field trips to The Alex Dental Health Bus. It’s all about students being connected to the community and supporting vulnerable populations in Calgary, says Sheridan.

Dental care is vital to overall health, but it can be expensive. In Calgary, 44,500 children aged 14 and under live in poverty, meaning proper dental care is out of reach. Sheridan wants students to be aware of this reality.

“We always talk about going abroad on different types of missions to help vulnerable populations in other countries. I think it’s important for our students to understand that some of that is right on our doorstep and that they can assist with those needs right here.”

Providing community connection opportunities for students is just one of many ways the relationship between SAIT and The Alex is symbiotic.

“We really complement each other. SAIT has the clinic space and the need for student experience. The Alex has the patient base that needs dental care. It’s a real win-win,” says Sheridan.

Written by Carolynn Semeniuk

SAIT's Dental Clinic is open to SAIT alumni students and staff, and to the general public.