Missionaries Help Bring Back Smiles to Texas Schoolchildren

Contributed By Linda Talbot, Church News contributor

  • 7 June 2018

A group of happy, smiling students after a thorough and painless dental visit. Missionaries from the Texas Houston South Mission have participated in a schoolchildren dental program every year since 2011. Photo by Kelly Floss.

Article Highlights

  • Project Saving Smiles helps reduce tooth decay in underserved children.
  • Missionaries from the Texas Houston South Mission have helped since 2011.

The big toothy grins were impossible to miss as Houston area second graders attended Project Saving Smiles, a dental program provided by the Houston Health Department and Houston Health Foundation. Support for the project also came from missionaries from the Texas Houston South Mission and community volunteers.

According to Robin Mansur, president and CEO of the Houston Health Foundation, these Houston Independent School District students were part of 10 missions, or weeks of service this year, stretching from October through April. The initiative also included approximately 9,500 students from Alief, Aldine, Fort Bend, Klein, Pasadena, and Spring Independent School Districts. By the end of the year, Project Saving Smiles will have treated 60,000 children since its inception in 2008.

“Project Saving Smiles acts as a safety net, educating parents about what can be done for their children and where to go for service. It is a prevention-oriented program, and we believe in the dental home model, so parents can connect with a dentist for the future,” Mansur stated.

“Missionaries from the [Church] have helped us from 2011. There are usually 8–10 who help with each service week. They are really like family, and we so much appreciated their contribution. They are wonderful, wonderful people, and we are very blessed to have their support. They all seem to be remarkably great with kids—very patient and playful,” Mansur said.

Elder Wilkinson, left, from Ashton, Idaho, and Elder Tenza from San Bernardino, California, missionaries in the Texas Houston South Mission, provide administrative services for the Project Saving Smiles initiative. Photo by Kelly Foss.

The Houston Health Foundation noted that Project Saving Smiles’s purpose is to reduce the prevalence of tooth decay in underserved children and remove barriers to learning through providing dental screenings, dental sealants, fluoride varnish, and oral health education free of charge, targeting Houston’s at-risk second graders who are enrolled in schools with 70 percent or more students on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program.

Sister Carli Benton from Sacramento, California, serving an LDS mission in the Houston area, added, “We have been teaching kids about how to eat healthy, what sealants and cavities are, how to drink tap water because it has fluoride, about flossing and brushing teeth, and why it is important to keep our teeth clean—all the time.”

Houston Independent School District’s Golfcrest Elementary School nurse Ellen Siegel has seen the program flourish over the 8 years she has helped with Project Saving Smiles. “This program teaches kids not to be afraid of the dentist. At least 50 percent of our kids have never seen a dentist. The parents aren’t aware of opportunities available to their children, so each child is given a report and we follow up with the parents and give referrals, which is so beneficial,” Siegel said.

As stated by the 2000 Surgeon General’s Report, children who suffer from oral health problems cannot learn well and miss days from school. Additionally, children who experience pain from tooth problems are likely to be distracted and unable to concentrate on their school work.

Second graders smile as missionaries from the Texas Houston South Mission participate in a schoolchildren dental program. Photo by Kelly Foss.

Dr. Teresita Ladrillo, operations chief of Project Saving Smiles for 10 years and senior dentist with the Houston Health Department, said, “Our battle is against cavities. They are preventable yet are not being prevented. When we first began the program, I couldn’t believe I am in the United States and seeing so many cavities. In the 30-minute oral health education, we give a pre- and post-test. Before the class, the children score in the 60s, and after 30 minutes they score in the 90s [percentiles].”

“We have been really happy with the LDS missionaries. They are professional. They learn fast and we always want them to come back,” Ladrillo said.

Baylei Webster, a second-grade student from Golfcrest, said, “It was great. It made my teeth tickle. I learned to keep my teeth clean.”

Her classmate A’mya Watson said, “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I liked the part where they put the pillow under my tongue.”

Project Saving Smiles community volunteers help with student registration. Photo by Kelly Foss.

From left, Sister Welton from Reno, Nevada; Robin Mansur, the president and CEO of Project Saving Smiles; and Sister Benton from Sacramento, California, enjoy helping the children. The missionary sisters are serving in the Texas Houston South Mission. Photo by Kelly Foss.

Students arrive at Project Saving Smiles. Photo by Kelly Foss.

First stop for students is a basic dental exam. Missionaries from the Texas Houston South Mission participate in a schoolchildren dental program. Photo by Kelly Foss.

School nurse Elen Siegel, left, and senior dentist Dr. Teresita Ladrillo take joy in seeing to the children’s dental needs. Photo by Kelly Foss.

Necessary dental services being provided to the students, thanks to community dental professionals volunteering their equipment and time. Photo by Kelly Foss.