SALT LAKE CITY — Candace Haws wipes down the portable dental chair between each patient. She readies her equipment and calls her next school-age patient to sit down.
Each child approaches the chair nervously but leaves about 10 minutes later — with a cleaner, healthier smile.
"Some of their parents can't afford regular cleanings and checkups for them," said Haws, a dental hygienist with Utah's only school-based preventive dental program Sealants for Smiles. "This is actually a great way to do preventive dental work, provide education and get ahead of the game for some of them."
She said it is surprising how many students have mouth pain or bad decay that has gone unnoticed for some time and needs further, even immediate attention.
The nonprofit's main goal is to place sealants — a thin, plastic coating — on the new molars of second- and sixth-graders' teeth, to prevent future decay. The population served is typically those from low-income households or who qualify for federal programs for free or reduced price lunch.
Sealants for Smiles President Dr. Roger Adams said the group is "at-risk" because of a lack of access to proper dental care.
He estimates that since it was founded in 2007, the program has led to a more than 23 percent reduction in unmet dental needs in Utah communities and helped avert more than $75 million in potential dental costs.
A recent Pew Center report indicates that too few children in Utah had access to low-cost sealant programs. Such programs, including Sealants for Smiles and one initiated by the state's Family Dental Plan, frequently run up against budget constraints and are only able to help 25 to 49 percent of schools in the state with at-risk students.
The nationwide goal is to provide access to sealants at 75 percent of schools within low-income regions, whose students are presumably at greater risk for decay, the report states.
A $100,000 donation from Intermountain Healthcare's Community Care Foundation announced Wednesday will help Sealants for Smiles expand coverage to nearly triple the students it now serves, Adams said.
"Intermountain Healthcare cares about the health of the community, and we know we can't be healthy by just delivering care through our emergency rooms, through our hospitals and our clinics," said Mikelle Moore, president of Intermountain's Community Care Foundation. She said education and outreach is a critical part of impacting a person's choices of healthy habits.
Moore said the donation, which will be paid over three years, is one of the largest the foundation has provided to a nonprofit but will help Sealants for Smiles "take a big jump forward" in an area of community need that can be measurably impacted.
More than 64,000 students have participated in Sealants for Smiles' oral health education program, with 35,265 evaluated by a licensed dental professional. In addition to fluoride application procedures, the program has placed 85,690 sealants on 25,012 at-risk Utah children between July 2007 and December 2012.
Franklin Elementary School Principal Peggy Paterson said the increase in dental care has led to a marked improvement in attendance at the Title I school, which already struggles with a high level of mobility as families frequently move in and out of the area. Sealants for Smiles has been visiting the school for two-week increments for the past three years.
"There is nothing at-risk about them in their ability to learn and perform," she said, adding that in addition to impacting attendance, dental problems have the potential to impact a student's concentration level throughout the day.
Adams, a former oral surgeon who personally examines each individual child, said the program has been able to visit an average of 50 schools each year. But without Wednesday's donation, only second- and sixth-grade students can be seen or treated. Typically the first and second sets of molars, up to eight in all, fully emerge around those ages, he said.
And sealants can only be placed on healthy teeth.
In at-risk populations, Adams said, there is a common belief that dental care is unnecessary, and educational programs are helping to turn that around, resulting in better health habits.
He hopes to expand the Sealants for Smiles program to every grade, "catching problems at an ideal time to help make a difference."
The program employs Adams and 15 part-time, independently contracted dental hygienists. Adams said everything operates under controlled environments, with all supplies donated by Utah-based Ultradent Products, one of the world's largest dental product manufacturers.
Ultradent provides about $50,000 in product each year, while Dental Select covers all administrative costs. Donations, such as the one from Intermountain, are put entirely toward patient care.
"It really does take a village," said Carol Jent, a clinical hygienist at Utradent. She said the company's goal is to stop dental decay, which is the world's most prevalent chronic disease.
"When you look close to home, you see there are needs in Utah," Jent said, adding that the need for increased access to dental care is more evident as the state's population grows and down-turned economic conditions continue.
Statewide, there are 130,929 children attending Utah public schools who participate in school lunch programs. Sealants for Smiles targets 230 at-risk elementary schools where a majority of those kids are enrolled. Half of those at-risk schools are in Salt Lake, Weber, Davis, Tooele and Utah counties.
Students with extensive decay or other dental problems, resulting from a combination of improper dental care or diet, are referred to various clinics that offer alternative payment methods or provide low-cost or free care.