Sharing Smiles Day tears down barriers

By Leslie Kostal
November 14, 2013

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DentalPaul Mayne, Western News
Western dentistry students Natasha Bhalla, Jonathan Sanderson and Kimberly Stevens are working hard at ‘Sharing Smiles’ in the London community. The three are part of an Oral Health, Total Health initiative, a student-run organization aiming to increase awareness, eliminate barriers and enhance access to oral health for persons with special needs. The program has earned a nomination as a finalist for a Pillar Community Innovation award, which will be announced Tuesday (Nov. 19).

It’s enough to put a smile on any face. And now, Oral Health, Total Health’s (OHTH) Sharing Smiles Day is a finalist for the 2013 Pillar Community Innovation Awards.

Four years ago, dental students at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry brought Sharing Smiles Day to London to help improve oral health for persons with special needs. Every year since, the dedicated student volunteers have demonstrated an innovative approach and strong commitment to the goals of the day.

It’s a noble endeavour established to tear down barriers for both dentist and patients.

“(When OHTH was founded at the University of Toronto), the only possible setting that would treat dental care for special needs was at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto,” said Jonathan Sanderson, a second-year dental student and one of three co-chairs for this year’s event. “For something that can easily be done in any dental office, as long as you’re willing to do it – you might have to adapt, there’s no need to be going to a hospital.”

Sharing Smiles Day helps to alleviate those barriers.

In London, dentists and hygienists from the community are invited to participate; Community Living London clients, as well as other smaller groups from London and St. Thomas, are invited as patients.

Every OHTH chapter follows the same structure for Sharing Smiles Day:

  • Carnival Morning: Every event begins with a morning full of games, face-painting and activities led and created by the respective dental students and volunteers from the OHTH chapter;
  • Luncheon: Following the carnival morning, everyone gathers to sit down and enjoy a warm lunch together with keynote speakers and performances on stage; and
  • Dental Demonstrations and participation: The last component of the day with toothbrushes and toothpastes includes oral hygiene education and demonstrations led by licensed dentists and dental hygienists from the community. The dental students assist with providing one-on-one care and attention to each participant.

“We sit down, have lunch together, and then move into the oral hygiene. You’re not attacking them right away with a toothbrush,” Sanderson said. “You just can’t leave the Great Hall without a smile on your face.”

At the 4th annual Sharing Smiles Day at Western in March, more than 80 people attended and received one-on-one care, attention and instruction for oral health. The event brought in 120 volunteers including students, faculty, dentists and hygienists from the Fanshawe College Dental Hygiene prgram, as well as Schulich Dentistry students, faculty and alumni.

Kimberly Stevens, an event co-chair, initially heard about OHTH during her first year at Schulich in 2010.

“Whether it’s not a part of our curriculum or perhaps those types of patients don’t enter our clinic, we just never experience the interaction,” she said. “We learn communication skills and patient management, in general. But we’re just never exposed to the special types of relationships that we need to work with these types of patients.”

Stevens spoke of a client at Community Living London who was too terrified to enter a dental office. As a part of the interaction over the years attending Sharing Smiles Day, this client recently – and cheerfully – had his first filling.

“That was a really happy success story to see that it does make a difference,” she added.

Third-year dental student Natasha Bhalla, an event co-chair, echoed that experiences and those sentiments.

“The first interaction I had last year with a patient from the special needs population was when we did our outreach at Clarke Road Secondary School,” Bhalla said. “The boy I was with wasn’t very interactive in the beginning. We played a little game at the end of the presentation. Just seeing him open up, interacting with him and seeing him drop his guard, was a very satisfying feeling. I left the day feeling really, really great.”

The London OHTH chapter was established in August 2009 by Drs. J. Birek and J. McCallum; it is currently led by Schulich dental students and faculty. The group fundraises all year to support Sharing Smiles Day.

Sponsored by the Pillar Nonprofit Network, the Pillar Community Innovation Awards celebrate nonprofits and charities, along with the individuals, businesses and government organizations who work with them, to make London brighter.

Twelve nominees in four categories – Innovation, Leadership, Impact and Collaboration – will learn their fate at the awards ceremony at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the London Convention Centre.

Oral Health, Total Health’s Sharing Smiles Day is nominated in the Innovation category. A second Western-connected organization, ProjectPlay, is nominated in the same category.


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