Buses to offer dental services

Schoolchildren and the elderly will have increased access to dental care with the launch of a new public/private partnership aimed at providing mobile dental services.

The recently hatched Smiles 2 Geaux nonprofit has two buses on loan from the city that are equipped as complete dentist offices. One bus soon will begin visiting public schools, starting with New Orleans Charter Math and Science High School. The other will serve senior citizens, who may find leaving their homes a challenge.

Once students at participating schools turn in a form signed by their parents, they will receive dental health services and follow-up care, free of charge.

The organization was founded by Dr. Yaye Sarr, a dentist who has a doctorate in public health from Tulane University and has worked for almost two decades providing dental care to low-income and underserved populations around the world.

Sarr also worked in research and as a professor at the LSU School of Dentistry.

Sci High co-Principal Chana Benenson said the timing could not be more perfect, following the release of a new Pew Center report that gave Louisiana a D on dental health care for low-income children. Benenson also said that her school was a perfect place to begin, with its emphasis on math and science, growing future generations of potential doctors, dentists and nurses.

Andrea Chen, executive director of Propeller, one of the partner organizations, called the statistics in Louisiana “staggering” and said more than 60 percent of children in the state have untreated cavities.

The lack of sufficient dental health care can affect quality of life and correlate to academic performance, Sarr said. The mobile units also provide efficient on-site care so students don’t have to miss school to go to the dentist, and parents don’t have to miss work to take them.

The organization also has strong emphasis on education and creating awareness as preventative measures. Through the support of the schools, Sarr said she wants to see reinforcement of day-to-day oral hygiene — flossing every day in addition to correct brushing techniques.

While the mobile units were not at the launch, Sarr showed photos of the interiors, each with two patient chairs and all the tools that would be found in a dentist’s office. She said the plan is to hire four full-time dentists. The buses that visit schools will serve about 15 students each day.

Charlotte Parent, deputy director of the city’s health department, stressed the importance of reaching the senior population and addressing inequities in health care for the elderly. Sarr said adults older than 65 have the lowest percentage of their dental expenses reimbursed and the highest out-of-pocket dental expenses.

Parent said the city began moving focus from providing direct care to partnering with private providers about two years ago, and the dental component is the last piece of the shift.

Smiles 2 Geaux board member Pape Ndiaye said the effort shows what can be achieved through combining private sector and public sector resources, brought together by nonprofits like Propeller, which is an incubator for social innovation and entrepreneurship. The Council on Aging is also a partner agency.

Addressing the student health class that attended the launch, Ndiaye talked about the community’s investment in young people as a down payment that one day ideally is returned as the students become adults contributing back to the community.

Carolina Wheeler, a junior at Sci High, said she thinks the mobile units will be beneficial, especially for the children in New Orleans who don’t have access to dental care. And Wheeler said she tries to floss every day.