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Groups collaborate to 'Give a Kid a Smile'

Local dentist Laura Schwindt lets Alexis Baker, 8, be in charge of operating the suction tool during her exam and cleaning at the eighth annual Give a Kid a Smile event Friday at Northwest Technical College. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Alexis Baker, 8, was nervous about getting her teeth checked Friday morning at Northwest Technical College, according to her mother, Jenna Zeller.

So when it came time for her to sit in the dentist chair, she was a little hesitant to open her mouth.

"Open really big, like an alligator," Jess Fragodt, a dental assistant from Grand Folks, N.D., told Baker, who was sitting back in the chair. "You're doing really well. Stay very still."

Fragodt counted to three and NTC student Kelsey McAlpin pushed a button that directed an X-ray machine to X-ray Baker's teeth. Five seconds later a photo of Baker's teeth displayed on a large computer screen in front of her.

After eyeing the photo, and showing no signs of pain, Baker agreed to allow the dental assistants to take another X-ray of the other side of her mouth.

"She was nervous about the X-rays and having a cavity here or there," Baker's mother said. "But she has no cavities!"

Baker was one of 176 children signed up to receive free dental care through the "Give a Kid a Smile" program at NTC and Northern Access Dental Center Friday and today.

The "Give a Kid a Smile" program is a national charitable event that gives free dental care to children from low-income families. The first Friday in February is often set aside for the program.

In Bemidji the program is for all children ages 1-18. Dentists from the local area and from around the state donate their time to help give dental care to the youth. Most of the materials and products used by the dental professionals are also donated.

"Last year with the help of volunteer dental assistants and hygienists, we figured we did over $33,000 in donated time and supplies," said Julie Dokken, director of NTC's dental assistant program.

According to Dokken, the "Give a Kid a Smile" event started eight years ago in Bemidji as one-day event.

"We basically did exams," she said. "We would see maybe 60 to 70 kids."

Today, more than 175 children have signed up to receive care and the service is offered for two days. NTC has also since partnered with Northern Access Dental Center, Beltrami County Public Health, Bi-County Community Action Program and Community Resource Connections.

"When we are seeing this volume of people, we try to get as many services involved as possible so they know what their resources are," Dokken said. "We're trying to educate not only the kids, but the parents as well, and not only with good oral health, but with all-around hygiene."

Terri Anderson, an NTC dental assistant program instructor, said the "Give a Kid a Smile" is offered in February because it is designated as Dental Health Month.

The program is also unique because it is the first time NTC dental assistant students have the opportunity to work with real patients on their own.

"They are always nervous," Dokken said of the dental assistant students. "After they get the first patient under their belt they get into the swing of things. It turns out to be a fun day."

Dokken said NTC took the initiative to host the program years ago because it offered a "perfect setup."

"With dentists in the community and the school, we could see so many people on a volume basis," Dokken said. "(NTC) was also a locally-known area, so people would know how to get here."

The dental assistant program at NTC has been in place since the early 1970s. It is starting its fifth year in the Allied Health wing, a recently added-on section of NTC. Dokken said dental assistant program staff have had to search for grants to receive outside funding to keep up with a quickly changing profession.

"So many things in dentistry have changed," she said. "We've gotten digital X-ray equipment and have added more chairs."

NTC graduates are eligible to take the Dental Assisting National Board Certification Exam and the Minnesota State Dental Assisting Licensure Exam.

Bob Mack, a dentist at North Country Dental in Bemidji, said this was his sixth year volunteering his time at the "Give a Kid a Smile" event.

"It's a really fun day," Mack said. "You get to break down some barriers for some kids who aren't able to receive dental care otherwise. Also there are all these people here giving their time to promote healthy children and healthier smiles. It's pretty awesome."

Throughout the day Friday, Mack estimated he would likely examine around 25 children.

"It's a lot of work done in a short amount of time," Mack said. "I think the coolest part is we get all these people together and just make this completely achievable along with the fact that our products are donated from the dental office or supplies. It's pretty neat."

Sara Zimmermann, a worker with the AmeriCorps VISTA program, helped coordinate the "Smile" program, which she started planning back in September.

"It's an awesome event," she said. "It's just amazing how they can get together and serve so many children in so little time. I'm from a small town and we had one dentist in our town and we never had anything like this."