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Kids grin and enjoy it at dentist in Queens Village

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Parked outside the district headquarters of state Assemblywoman Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village) on Springfield Boulevard and 97th Avenue, a converted motor home called the Smiling Faces, Going Places van served as a dental office on wheels. With a dentist's chair and an X-ray machine inside and a paint job depicting happy kids outside, the oral hygiene machine serves two purposes: introducing children to dental care in a fun way and raising awareness about the need for upkeep, particularly in areas where many families do not have medical coverage.

"A lot of people do not have health insurance," said Clark, who arranged for the van to come. "This is a great service."

During its Queens Village stopover, parents agreed that the van was also effective in providing a welcoming environment to youngsters since it is outfitted with toys and a television for cartoons.

"It's a good introduction," said Lynette Brown of Jamaica, who brought her 9-year-old son, Justin, for one of the free checkups being offered. "It's not as threatening. It's more like a toy."

But that toy still provides serious services, said Dr. Anthony Johnson, a pediatric dentist on the college's faculty who runs the van's operations.

"We treat kids who normally don't get routine dental care," he said, referring to their neighborhoods as underserved communities. "There's a real need for dental treatment and awareness."

Begun in 1999, the motor home travels to neighborhoods where many of the people lack insurance and are in need of care, pointed there both by area politicians such as Clark and by studying demographic data. The van has served Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn; the South Bronx; and Woodside, Flushing and Long Island City, among other neighborhoods. Since the one-day visits only entail quick checkups, the staff advises parents to later take their children to a more traditional dentist, particularly if a problem is detected.

Johnson, who grew up in South Jamaica, said he new there was a need for such services. "There was nothing like this when I was a kid," he noted.

Clark said the van had been coming to her district for several years, and her staff had passed out fliers in the district and placed newspaper ads announcing the event. With the threat of rain, fewer than a dozen parents and their children showed up, and an informal survey found that most of those who came already took their offspring to the dentist on a regular basis.

Johnson said oral hygiene and awareness in Queens Village was a little better than in other neighborhoods the van visits, but he said that even in the middle-class enclave the mobile care serves a purpose.

"You can't just limit it to socio-economic background," he said. "There's still a need in Queens Village."

In addition to yearly stops at Clark's office, the van also spends several weeks every spring parked outside of PS 136 in St. Albans, with 772 students attending the largest elementary school in the assemblywoman's district. There Johnson and the dental residents he supervises provide more comprehensive services than during their one-day stops and see a wide range of cases.

Asked why the university focused on kids instead of parents, too, Johnson said, "I think there's a greater need to address children."

Posted 7:15 pm, October 10, 2011
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