SMART Smiles expanded to Burnet Middle School at the end of the 2021-22 school year. The nonprofit can now provide dental work for kids of all ages due to its proximity to the high school. Courtesy photo
Students traversing the halls of Burnet Middle School this fall might notice something different in one of the classrooms: a full-fledged dentist’s office.
The five dental chairs and panoramic X-ray machine are part of SMART Smiles, a nonprofit, school-based oral health program that provides free dental services to middle and high school students year-round. It also sets up temporary clinics in Burnet and Marble Falls elementary schools.
SMART, which stands for Saving, Maintaining, and Retaining Their (Smiles), has delivered more than $1.3 million worth of dental care to underserved children in Burnet and Marble Falls over the past nine years. It was founded by Burnet dental hygienist Jennifer Banton after the success of a Texas Mission of Mercy dental event for adults held at Burnet High School in 2013.
“Hundreds of adults came,” Banton said. “(BCISD Superintendent) Keith McBurnett and I were discussing it afterward and thought, ‘We helped hundreds of adults but didn’t do anything for the kids.’ We started talking about what to do to take care of the kids.”
Through donations, grants, and volunteers, SMART Smiles was soon lugging 20 folding dental chairs to set up on elementary school campuses for education and plaque removal. The program’s mission is to make sure all kids have access to dental hygiene and have fun doing it.
“The whole point of the program is to introduce kids to it and it not be intimidating,” Banton said. “We don’t want it to be scary. The whole program is based around making it fun.”
SMART Smiles opened its permanent classroom clinic at Burnet Middle School in the last days of the 2021-22 school year as a trial run for the upcoming academic year. Once in full working order, volunteers will offer dental cleanings and screenings year-round to students on the shared middle and high school campus.
At the elementary schools, SMART Smiles uses open spaces to create its impromptu clinics. The layout of the chairs creates a communal experience. Instead of being all alone in a room with a stranger scraping plaque, children can be placed next to a friend and have their teeth cleaned together.
“The kids get a preventative dental cleaning like they would at a dental office, a fluoride varnish, and any sealants the dentist diagnoses,” Banton said. “Then, the kids get a goody bag and go back to class.”
The new clinic at Burnet Middle School couldn’t be more different, with dividers set up to increase privacy. It’s a matter of being cognizant of different age groups, Banton said.
“In middle school, it’s so awkward,” she said. “It’s not cool anymore to sit next to your buddy while someone cleans plaque off your teeth. We’ve adjusted it a little bit at the middle school so they have more privacy. That way, they’re not sitting next to their crush while getting their teeth cleaned.”
SMART Smiles’ step-by-step plan begins with education. This part of the process is open to all children, whether or not their guardian signed a consent form, a necessary requirement before services can be provided.
“It’s all age-appropriate,” Banton said. “The kids get to meet a dentist or a dental hygienist, and the kids learn about good foods and bad foods and what makes our teeth happy and sad.”
The team at SMART Smiles uses the educational portion of the program to normalize dental hygiene, allowing students to play with the dental tools while teaching them each tool’s purpose.
“It’s not intimidating at all,” Banton said. “They get their teeth tickled. They get to play with the tools from the dental unit like the squirt gun and Mr. Thirsty.”
Once a parent has signed and turned in a consent form, each child moves to the next step of the process. They meet with a dentist who’s normally stationed in a room away from everyone else to receive oral examinations.
“The dentist looks them over for any signs of decay or infection,” Banton said. “Basically, just any kind of problems that otherwise we might not know about.”
All dentists and hygienists are volunteers, either from the community or the dental schools at Central Texas College, Austin Community College, and, soon, the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Volunteers from the community help with registration and corralling the kids through the process. Banton’s husband, Zeke, usually sets up the chairs and makes any necessary repairs. Both Bantons served in the U.S. Marine Corps. A Burnet native, Zeke brought his wife home to the Hill Country in 2003. She now works as a dental hygienist for Dr. Susan Henson and he does custom woodworking.
“He was a helicopter crew chief in the Marines and a mechanic before that,” Banton said. “He can fix anything, so he takes care of all the equipment.”
Elementary and middle schools with at least 55 percent of their students on a free or reduced lunch program are eligible for SMART Smiles’ services. The program was active in both the Marble Falls and Burnet school districts until the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are back up and running,” said Banton, adding that a fun run fundraiser is planned for February 2023. “Maybe running miles for smiles or something like that.”