Program brings free dental clinics to Gainesville

Ni’Ryana Ellison, 22, settled uneasily into the reclining chair and waited for what would happen next.

“I’m not certain when I last went to the dentist,” she later said. “It was likely in middle school, and I was very nervous when it was my turn to sit in that chair and have them examine my teeth.”

Ellison was one of the 35 patients recently treated at the first-ever Saving Smiles clinic at Project YouthBuild, a nine-month program helping at-risk youth earn high school diplomas.

The Alachua County Health Assessment in 2019 found that the most difficult health care service to access in the country was dentistry. In Alachua County, 38.4% percent of respondents said they didn’t receive the dental care they needed, with 74.7% identifying cost as a reason, and 55.9% claiming they didn’t have insurance to cover it.

Medicaid is not of much help, according to Dr. Olga Luaces, a practitioner at the University of Florida Dentistry.

“For people that have Medicaid dental insurance, few dental providers in Florida accept this type of insurance due to low reimbursement rates for treatment completed,” Luaces said. “Dental offices that do accept Medicaid dental insurance typically have very long wait times for appointments.” 

Project YouthBuild recently transformed its school into a dentist’s office for a week, providing free dental services to students like Ellison, as well as alumni and children.

The Dr. Banks & Dr. Cosby Youth Empowerment Center is home to Project YouthBuild’s campus. It accommodates the whole Project YouthBuild program, including classrooms, computer labs and a construction skill teaching facility that is both indoor and outdoor.

YouthBuild partnered with the University of Florida Community Dentistry (UFCD) Saving Smiles Program to offer the clinic. 

“Dental exams, oral hygiene, nutrition education, dental cleanings, dental sealants, fillings, extractions of baby teeth and fluoride varnish were among the numerous treatments provided,” Luaces said. 

The clinic served 11 children of alumni, 11 children from the community, eight students and five alumni. 

YouthBuild currently has 25 students in its program—ranging in age from 16 to 24—working toward their high school diplomas in a nine-month period. Groups of students volunteer daily at local organizations such as GRACE Marketplace, Bread of the Mighty and Repurpose Project. 

YouthBuild’s main source of funding is The Alachua County Children’s Trust, which also funds the Saving Smiles clinics. The partnership between the organizations was established following one of their regular meetings when Jonathan Leslie, the executive director of Project YouthBuild, met Luaces.

“Since our location used to be a dentist’s office and many of our students don’t have easy access to dental care, this clinic was a great fit for our program,” said Lauren Levitt, the parenting program coordinator at YouthBuild. 

It was up to the students whether they wanted to see the dentist. Many were hesitant about the new service at first, but Ellison was glad she went.  

“My visit to the dentist turned out to be almost enjoyable,” she said. “I received a lot of information about my teeth, like what is healthy to drink and what to stay away from. The dentist also removed a lot of plaque from my teeth that I wasn’t aware of, and my teeth felt very clean after that visit.” 

Saving Smiles clinics are held every six weeks at community venues, but the objective for this year is to offer clinics every three weeks, in addition to many other dental outreach activities. Fluoride varnish treatments are also offered at Alachua County Head Start Centers.

There are also other dental health programs available in the community. All 23 public primary schools in Alachua County participate in the Oral Health Surveillance Program, which provides dental screenings to nearly 2,000 third graders each year.

“These dental screenings happen so we can see which schools have the highest percentage of tooth decay for us to have our focus be in that area of Alachua County,” Luaces said. “We are actively making connections with community organizations where we can potentially hold future Saving Smiles clinic events, especially in East Gainesville where there is a greater need for dental care.” 

The UFCD Department of Community Dentistry and Behavioral Science’s community dental outreach programs have enhanced access to preventative dental care for children at high risk of tooth decay throughout Alachua County. 

Any children with untreated tooth decay who are detected in the prevention-focused programs are sent to the Saving Smiles Program for no-cost dental care, such as dental fillings or baby tooth extractions. This enables children to obtain much-needed care while also preventing tooth problems from becoming dental crises.

“We want to focus our work where the need is, and our goal for this year has been to host clinics every three weeks along with our many other dental outreach programs,” Luaces said. 

The Saving Smiles program will continue working with YouthBuild. The next clinic is expected to take place in late July or early August.

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