If one child’s smile can warm the heart, imagine what tens of thousands can do.
That’s the reality in Laredo, where Miles of Smiles-Laredo has been brightening the world for thousands of children–and their families–since 2006.
Miles of Smiles-Laredo is a School of Dentistry public health program for children living in Webb County. It is directed by David P. Cappelli, Ph.D., D.M.D., M.P.H., professor and director of the Research Division in the Department of Comprehensive Dentistry at UT Health San Antonio.
“We started out in only a couple of schools in United ISD,” Dr. Cappelli said. “Since 2006 we’ve grown to include all 47 elementary schools in both the United and Laredo Independent School Districts. We reach the vast majority of students in Webb County, around 10,000 children each year.”
Miles of Smiles-Laredo is a school-based program, Dr. Cappelli explained, making it convenient and comfortable for the students. Using portable dental equipment, a team of one dentist and three dental assistants from UT Health’s Laredo campus spend two to four days in each school.
The program serves children in kindergarten, first, second and third grades. Miles of Smiles-Laredo provides dental screenings and fluoride varnish for all students in the program at no cost to the family. Dental sealants are provided at no cost to second-graders. The sealants are replaced, if necessary, during the third grade visit.
During the visit, children receive information on oral hygiene and general oral health habits. There is a case management component to the program.
“Children who have urgent oral health care needs are referred to the case manager who links the child and parents to a local dentist,” Dr. Cappelli said.
“School-based oral health programs are possible, effective, and successful because of support from many organizations and people advocating for children and the importance of their oral health,” he added.
Miles of Smiles-Laredo, Dr. Cappelli said, enjoys the partnership and support of both school districts, the Laredo Health District, Gateway Community Health Center and Laredo Community College. Another partner is Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Texas Care Van Program, which provides Miles of Smiles-Laredo with a van to transport the equipment to and from schools.
Dr. Cappelli noted that programs like Miles of Smiles-Laredo “reduce the burden of disease in school-age children and promote good oral health. In fact, over the past five years we’ve seen a six percent reduction in tooth decay. I don’t want to attribute that solely to the program, but we’ve certainly had an impact.”
Graciela Lopez, B.S.N., RN, Laredo ISD health services coordinator, agreed. “The Miles of Smiles-Laredo program has been very welcome in our district,” she said. “Many of our students have limited insurance, and cannot afford to see a dentist on a routine basis. Miles of Smiles-Laredo allows for our students to get a basic screening, and sealants for those that fall within the age range, at no cost to them and without having to miss out on too much instruction. It has been a wonderful resource for our students and parents.”
In the past school year, it’s estimated that Miles of Smiles-Laredo provided more than $470,000 in uncompensated dental services to children in Webb County. The program is entirely funded by a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.