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Free dental screenings provided to youngsters

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Open wide and say, “Aaaah.”

Thanks to a $268,000 City Council grant secured by Councilman Joel Rivera and a custom van-based dental program, the students at P.S. 57 now say it well. It could be one of their most important lessons.

“We know dental health is vital to well-being,” said Rivera at a working demonstration March 15 at the 2111 Crotona Avenue school. “If a student lacks the proper care, that student cannot focus. When the pain of a toothache is alleviated, it allows a kid to focus on being a kid and learning in school.”

The NYU-based program and its RV-sized van are 13-years old, plying the highways between Albany and the East End of Long Island. Its dentists and technicians have witnessed more than 20,000 patient visits.

“It’s a great opportunity for the children to get much-needed dental care in a risk-free environment,” said 13-year P.S. 57 principal Edsel Philip. “It can be expensive work they might not otherwise get.” He gestured toward the dozen NYU staffers, including full-time dental assistant Coleen Glasgow and Constance Robinson-Turner, chief administrator of the “Smiling Faces, Going Places” NYU mobile dental care program, and said, “They’ve been great.”

The bright purple and white van parked in the playground serves as the two-seater dental office. Donald Holmes has been the contract driver for three years. He drives about 100 miles per week. A new half-million-dollar NYU dental van is planned for next year.

Fourth-year NYU School of Dentistry students and just-graduated interns do the bulk of the work. Dr, Esther Yang, who was not on hand March 15, is the program’s medical chief. Additional medical faculty and professional hygienists “rotate through,” in the parlance of the van.

“We were the first licensed statewide program like this,” said Robinson-Turner. She called the van “an extension clinic on wheels.”

Through March, the vehicle will serve students at P.S. 57 Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; and both students and the adult community at P.S. 163 on Wednesdays from 10 a.m.-8 p.m.

With multiple return trips to the same schools and neighborhoods -- Head Start and day care children also use the van -- Robinson-Turner said NYU actively charts lasting progress. “We can measure progress by the previous records,” she said. “And it is real. We can show our program is achieving the goal of promoting good health care and decreasing cavities.”

An initial checkup in the van’s two-chair clinic would be familiar to anyone who goes to the dentist: an exam, cleaning, fluoride treatment, digital X-rays as needed and a push for concerted future hygiene. For those who need it, there are sealant treatments, restorative work and simple extractions.

“We send home a ‘dear parent’ note about what we did and the student arrives home with all this fresh information, a toothbrush and toothpaste and a sticker,” said Robinson-Turner. “They become ambassadors for good health care.”

Rivera addressed the issue from the parents’ perspective, saying that finding the time for concerted dental visits can be difficult. “With this, we can bring the service to the kids,” he said. And to the children amid laughter: “Watch out for the sugar bugs; they’ll eat your teeth”

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