Give Kids A Smile kicks off in D.C.

Howard University College of Dentistry hosts access to care event

All together: From left are Kayla Lane-Illescas, third-year dental student at Howard and president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry student chapter; Andrea Jackson, D.D.S., dean of the Howard University College of Dentistry; Linda J. Edgar, D.D.S., ADA president; Jennifer Kim Field, vice president and chief sustainability officer at Henry Schein; LaToya M. Barham, D.D.S., residency director and chair of Howard's Department of Pediatric Dentistry; Dawna Michelle Fields, senior director of community and operations at Colgate-Palmolive; and Michele Tulak-Gorecki, D.D.S., ADA Foundation chair. Photos by Henry Schein.

As a child, Kayla Lane-Illescas wasn’t scared of visiting the dentist’s office. She distinctly remembers the inviting atmosphere filled with big stuffed animals and always going home afterwards feeling joyful. 

Now a third-year dental student at the Howard University College of Dentistry, Ms. Lane-Illescas wants to give that same warm experience to other kids. That’s why, on the morning of Feb. 2, Howard’s dental school was filled with music, stickers, activities and wide grins for its annual Give Kids A Smile event. 

Howard was the site of the ADA Foundation’s Give Kids A Smile national kickoff event. Launched nationally in 2003, the Give Kids A Smile program was a way for dentists across the country to join with community members to provide free dental services to underserved children while also highlighting for policymakers the ongoing challenges that many face in affording dental care. What began as a one-day event the first Friday in February eventually transformed into local and national events taking place year-round. 

This year’s event at Howard, which provided free dental services to more than 100 children, featured an “Under the Sea” theme that included ocean-related streamers and kinetic sand. As co-chair of Howard’s Give Kids A Smile program, Ms. Lane-Illescas said the point of the theme was twofold: to create a welcoming environment for kids and to provide a fun hands-on experience that many of them might not have had otherwise.

Working hard: One young patient's mother looks on as her son receives treatment.

“Since we do live in the inner city, we know that a lot of kids haven’t gone to the dentist, maybe they haven’t been to the beach either,” she said. “To make the experience enjoyable was really my mission.”

LaToya M. Barham, D.D.S., residency director and chair of Howard’s department of pediatric dentistry, added that creating a comfortable setting for kids can help to establish dental relationships that carry into the future.  

“I like to see that they are having fun. And I really like for them to know, ‘Oh, we’re coming to the dental school, and it is not scary.’ Now they’ll know that the dentist is cool,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure we create a strong foundation for oral health, particularly for children’s oral health.”

At the Feb. 2 event, dental residents and students, under the supervision of faculty, provided cleanings, various preventive treatments and educational demonstrations for children across four local schools in the District of Columbia. Any child seen at the clinic who needs follow up oral health services and a dental home will be placed under the care of the Howard University College of Dentistry dental clinic.

Linda J. Edgar, D.D.S., president of the ADA, said she was delighted not only to be at the event but also about the opportunity to encourage children to pursue dentistry. 

“The experience has been amazing. What you say to a child can stay with them for the rest of their life. We want to encourage them to brush and be part of dentistry, and it’s just really exciting,” Dr. Edgar said. 

The American Dental Association initially launched Give Kids A Smile in an effort to bring dentists together and offer free oral health screenings, treatment, and education to underserved children. To date, more than 7 million children have received free dental services through the program. Sponsors Henry Schein and Colgate have supported the program for decades, providing education and product kits for use at Give Kids A Smile events. 

According to Jennifer Kim Field, vice president and chief sustainability officer at Henry Schein, the decision to partner with the ADA at its inception was “critically important.”

“We care. What we want to do is to really help advance health equity, in particular oral health on the dentistry side of things,” she said. “It’s also just part of who we are as a purpose-driven company — being able to do good in communities in order to do well in business. We think that there is an inextricable link around that, and we can’t do it without partnerships.”

At your service: These volunteers are ready to provide patients with oral health care.

Dawna Michelle Fields, who oversees Colgate’s Bright Smiles, Bright Futures program, noted that Colgate has been connecting underserved communities to oral health education and treatment for more than 30 years. She said that Colgate and the ADA Foundation have similar objectives in this regard. 

“[Give Kids A Smile] embraces exactly what we do. We go to where people live, learn and pray. We are trying to reimagine a healthier future for all people,” Ms. Fields said. “Partnering with Give Kids A Smile is a way that we can not only stay connected but give back.”

Dr. Barham echoed this sentiment, stating that the ‘why’ behind Give Kids A Smile goes back to increasing accessibility to oral health care. 

“We want to make sure we continue on the road to decrease barriers to access to care. We know that there are so many families out here who aren’t even able to receive good, quality care on a continuous basis,” she said.

Although the Give Kids A Smile national kickoff is celebrated in February during National Children’s Dental Health Month, events will take place throughout the year. So far in 2024, 1,211 Give Kids A Smile events have been registered with the ADA Foundation to take place this year.

Andrea Jackson, D.D.S., dean of Howard University College of Dentistry, said that Howard’s longtime commitment to serving will not slow down any time soon.

“This event is something we look forward to every year. We look forward to bringing the kids in and our students have really geared up for that. They love working with the kids,” Dr. Jackson said. “Just seeing these smiling faces is just a wonderful thing.”

Howard is dedicated to fostering a culture of service, Ms. Lane-Illescas emphasized. Her hope is to continue breaking down barriers to health care access and provide care to those who need it most. 

“This is every day here at Howard. We really try to accommodate people, and we really try to make sure that the whole world, the inner city, the metropolitan area, the DMV area — that we’re able to provide whatever they need,” she said.

For more information about the ADA Foundation’s signature access to care program, visit

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