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Jennifer Meyer’s eyes light up and her own smile grows when she talks about a program that helps children in the region who do not have regular access to dental care. For Meyer, an assistant instructor in the School of Allied Health’s dental hygiene program, a smile and good dental health – particularly for a child – mean everything.
When Meyer began “Give Kids A Smile Day” on campus 17 years ago, the two-day event attracted 50 children and included a few faculty and one or two staff dentists. About 160 children from infant to 14 years old participated earlier this month and included about 100 dental hygiene students, 16 faculty volunteer dentists and hygienists providing the free care.
Meyer’s enthusiasm, reputation and personality “make people want to participate,” said Amy Wyatt, a clinical assistant professor who nominated Meyer. “She inspires those around her with her love of the Give Kids a Smile Day event, her community and her profession.”
More than 2,500 local children have received care
Since 2003, more than 2,500 children who do not receive regular dental treatment and who do not have access to dental care have participated in the program, which is an example of furthering the university’s mission of community service and transforming lives.
Meyer takes pride in providing preventive services to the uninsured and underserved populations and makes sure the atmosphere is “caring and inviting to the children and parents,” said Natalie Richardson, a dental hygienist in the School of Allied Health.
Participating children receive dental examinations, X-rays, cleanings, fluoride treatments, sealants and fillings, or simple extractions under special circumstances. The program also works to find a “dental home” for patients if there is a need for additional treatment.
Has coordinated local event since inception
The Greater St. Louis Dental Society initiated the program in 2002 and offered it up nationwide to American Dental Association affiliates the next year. Meyer, who supervised the SIU Community Dental Center at the time, said there with so many uninsured children in the region and high co-pays and deductibles for large families, the need was there.
“We saw the need and saw that we have the facility and the room and most of all, the heart, to help,” Meyer said.
Meyer will start receiving inquiries about the date for next year’s event soon after one is finished, and she sends out save-the-date cards in August. She will begin soliciting volunteers and donations in the fall and that includes patients from the previous year to offer appointments.
Community support is integral
Meyer is thankful for the dentists and hygienists who volunteer their time away from their own practices for that day and those who financially back the program. She noted several dentists have contributed time since the program began.
Stacey McKinney, an assistant instructor, is a former student of Meyer’s and graduated in 2010. She had a different perspective this year on the work Meyer puts into coordinating the event.
“It’s important for children whose parents have no other means of taking them somewhere and are receiving this dental treatment for no cost,” McKinney said. “There are so many kids who are of high need.”
Meyer “has it all together”
Recalling her time as a student in the program, McKinney notes students only see the “end product and not all the work” that goes into holding the event.
“She’s had help, but she’s done a lot of it by herself and you don’t realize the effort and time that she puts into doing this program every single year,” McKinney said.
Meyer acknowledges the work required to put all the pieces in place. For her, however, seeing children receive preventive dental care, enjoy their appointments with their hygienists and see her students bond together is the reward. Dental hygiene students write reflection papers and say this is their favorite day of the year.
“Seeing happy families and happy students makes it a wonderful feel good experience. It’s my favorite day of the year,” she said.
The program applies for continuity care grants and other funding so local families can come back to receive additional dental work or treatment that cannot be done within an eight hour time span.
Expanded services this year
This year, Give Kids A Smile Day added free vision screenings for children from six months to six years old, thanks to the Lions Club. Meyer would like to add more services, noting in St. Louis, for example, hearing screenings along with lunches are available.
“Collaborating with more groups across campus would be amazing and beneficial,” Meyer said.
Saluki Athletics has been involved for a few years and “is a wonderful partner for us,” she said. Football and volleyball players were available for autographs, to sign kids up for the Brown Dawg Kid’s Club and give away free T-shirts. The program’s success also attracted the St. Louis Area Food Bank and the Illinois ICash program.
Involved in other volunteer activities
Jennifer Sherry, an associate professor in dental hygiene and Meyer collaborate on Special Olympics Special Smiles Program on campus each April, providing dental examinations and screenings for the athletes. Meyer also goes to local schools for dental education programs.
Dental program is a “second home”
Meyer, who is from Joliet, got her interest in the dental field while in high school, working as an office manager at an orthodontists’ office. She graduated from SIU with a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene in 1998 and began teaching here a year later.
“It’s my second home,” Meyer said of the dental hygiene program. “I’m here at school as much as I am with my family; this is my work family. The students are wonderful and we have an amazing group of faculty. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I couldn’t imagine not coming here and spending time with them.”