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University of Michigan School of Dentistry students find many ways to “Give Kids a Smile” at annual free clinic8 min read

March 20, 2024

University of Michigan School of Dentistry students find many ways to “Give Kids a Smile” at annual free clinic8 min read

Third-year dental student Olivia D’Angelo (far left) and second-year student Madeline Cardinal receive a thumbs-up from 5-year-old Archel Sihotang as they talk with him during his appointment at the Give Kids a Smile clinic. The boy’s father watches (upper left) from the adjacent cubicle where Archel’s 7-year-old brother was also receiving dental care. (Photos by Mary Lewandowski, School of Dentistry)

Ann Arbor, Mich., March 20, 2024 – Two clinics at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry were abuzz with the enthusiastic conversations between dental students and the children they were treating Saturday during the annual “Give Kids a Smile” event.

Children ages 4-14 from around the Ann Arbor region were brought to the dental school by their parents and guardians for free dental care during this annual event.

Dental and dental hygiene students and faculty from the U-M dental school provided dental exams, cleanings, x-rays, sealants, fillings and extractions for about 90 children. Upper-level dental students, under the supervision of faculty, performed the basic dental care. If more serious problems were discovered, the patients were referred to their family dentist or other specialists.

Dental student Dane Smitz assists with a dental exam of Keiland Armstead during the Give Kids a Smile clinic.

The “Give Kids a Smile” clinic, known as GKAS for short, is organized by students. Third-year dental student Omair Hasan, a member of the planning committee and vice president of the school’s pediatric dentistry student chapter, said making GKAS a fun environment for the children is important. This year the clinic was decorated in a Super Heroes theme with some of the dental students wearing costumes. T-shirts, wristbands and coloring books were among the gifts for the kids.

“Healthy oral habits start young, and the best way to make a habit stick is to make it fun,” Hasan said. “The kids have a fun morning with enjoyment and discovery, but they’re learning important lifelong skills of brushing, flossing and taking care of their teeth.”

A second, equally important aspect of the clinic is that dental students gain valuable experience in both the technical aspects of treating young patients and the communication methods – such as encouragement and praise – necessary to reduce the anxiety children often feel when receiving dental treatment. “Every year, the dental and dental hygiene students are excited to share their Saturday working with children and learning about pediatric dental health from a first-hand perspective,” Hassan said. “We are lucky to have the opportunity to host this event every year, and we are honored to provide an introduction to dental care for so many kids in the community.”

Dental student Amanda Guido (left), wearing a Wonder Woman mask as part of the day’s Super Heroes theme, polishes the teeth of Jaydi Vila as dental student Ella McKinney assists.

The banter in Cubicle 41 was representative of the continuous interactions between dental students and small children throughout the morning. Third-year dental student Olivia D’Angelo was leading the exam of a five-year-old boy named Archel as his mother Rahel Sihotang, of Canton, Michigan, stood at his feet with a smile of encouragement. D’Angelo and her assistant, second-year dental student Madeline Cardinal, immediately began talking with Archel and asking questions to put him at ease. The precocious boy seemed to have a willing answer for everything.

“Who is your favorite Super Hero?” Cardinal asks. “Iron Man,” Archel answers. “My little brother likes Iron Man, too!” Cardinal offers.

As preparation began for the boy’s exam, a lull in the conversation led Cardinal to reach for the dental handpiece that discharges a stream of air. “Want to feel this air?” she asks, then releases a gentle burst of air on his open hand, causing him to smile at the sensation.

“Have you lost any teeth?” D’Angelo asks as she starts her up-close look at his primary teeth, also known as “baby teeth.” Archel nods to confirm. “Yes, I can tell,” D’Angelo says as she looks into his mouth. “Did the tooth fairy come?” she asks. Apparently not, based on his non-reaction.

Dental student Ryan Mao examines the teeth of Alice Qi during the Give Kids a Smile clinic.

D’Angelo reports that Archel’s teeth look really healthy, with no cavities, so he may need only a cleaning today. “Have you had a cleaning before?” she asks and he nods. “Yeah? Well then, you’re a pro,” she says. When pediatric dentistry faculty member Dr. Rodney Vergotine stops at the cubicle to confer with D’Angelo on her assessment of the boy’s teeth, they decide that x-rays are also in order because Archel has yet to have x-rays, which are usually recommended for children by age 5. A radiology screen helps dentists spot caries or other problems that may be deeper than a visual inspection allows.

Cardinal gushes at the boy’s good exam. “No cavities!” she exclaims, then raises the palm of her hand with an exuberant “High five!” request for the boy. Archel obliges and heads off, smiling, for his x-ray.

Faculty member Dr. Larry Salzmann, director of the dental school’s Pediatric Dentistry Clinic, said GKAS is a school-wide effort beginning with student organizers who utilize many faculty, staff and school resources for both treating the children and creating a fun atmosphere.

One example of the widespread support GKAS receives was on display near the check-in area on Saturday. Dr. Holly Kholdani and student volunteers were handing out free t-shirts to children receiving dental care, with the assortment ranging from tiny shirts for 4-year-olds to larger sizes for kids up through age 14. For the last three years of GKAS, Kholdani has donated the maize and blue shirts that feature her own creative design. It merges the letter M into the shape of a heart that spells out either “M Hero” or “M Strong.” She came up with the concept to benefit the cancer clinic at U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and has now adapted it for use at GKAS, with help from her mentee, Maria Thanasas, a second-year dental student, and Taryn Minton, a dental assistant in the school’s Dental Faculty Associates clinic.

Dr. Holly Kholdani with a table full of t-shirts featuring a design she created and which she donated as a gift for children participating in GKAS.

Kholdani’s dental practice is in St. Claire Shores, Michigan, and for the last 10 years she also has been a faculty member, currently working two days a week as a staff dentist in the dental school’s Patient Admitting and Emergency Services clinic. She said she hopes to expand her t-shirt designs into a fundraiser that will benefit research and care for underserved patients through the dental school’s Pediatric Dentistry department. In the meantime, her volunteer work for C.S. Mott and GKAS is an example of her message to dental students she teaches and mentors: Being a dentist means more than just treating patients in a dental chair. Giving back through community service should be standard practice beyond the dental practice, she says.

The dental school’s Give Kids a Smile event is part of a nationwide initiative started by the American Dental Association and its foundation in 2003. The local event is supported by the School of Dentistry, the Michigan Dental Association, the Washtenaw District Dental Society and dental supply company Henry Schein.

Students and faculty who participated in the GKAS clinic pose for a group photo. (Photo courtesy student organizers)


The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral healthcare education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.  For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at:  Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at [email protected], or (734) 615-1971.