K.C.’s Tooth Fairy - Miles of Smiles hits the road providing free dental care to area children

Dr. Neena Patel makes going to the dentist fun.

Nate Sheets

    As miniature planets hang from the ceiling and bright, paper stars dot the wall, a child might imagine themselves floating in outer space. But the whirring sound in the Miles of Smiles office, based in North Kansas City, isn’t a spaceship—it’s a dentist cleaning a toddler’s teeth. Dr. Neena Patel, D.D.S. is one of two dentists that work at Miles of Smiles, a nonprofit that provides free dental care to low-income children in the Northland.

    “Many people don’t realize there are people who want this care who can’t get it or afford it.”

     The organization, conceived 16 years ago, takes a two-pronged approach to making dental care accessible by removing both the cost and the transportation barrier, says Miles of Smiles executive director, Christy May. The portable dental program comes directly to children at elementary schools and other social service organizations. They also have an office location where they treat younger children and handle more complex dental problems.

    “We are truly accessible to the families that need us, because we provide the care for free, provide it in a convenient location — right where the children are — and we are open five days a week. Access and affordability are our big, strongest, kind of unique points.”

    To date, more than 19,000 children have received free dental services. May says that for many people, dental care is considered a luxury. Currently, in the United States, 114 million people are without any dental coverage. The executive director recounts the story of a mother who was frantic about her children seeing a dentist.

    “Several years ago, her husband was out of work and they were really financially strapped and didn’t have dental insurance. She said, it just made a difference in that very stressful moment their life to know that her girls’ -- she had two daughters-- were taken care of.”

    Children having good oral health is vital. According to the Centers for Disease Control, tooth decay is one of the top chronic conditions of childhood. In addition to causing serious infections, untreated tooth decay can lead to problems speaking, eating, playing and learning.

    Patel sees this a lot. She describes terrified children overcoming their fear of dentists after days of in-school visits and treatments. She says the distress stems from the fact that most of these children have never visited the dentist before and some of them had been in a lot of discomfort.

    “They’re out of pain and they didn’t know that they could feel better. They didn’t even realize there was something wrong; they’ve been living with pain in their mouths.”

    May says Miles of Smiles is all about making a long-term positive impact on a child’s life.

    “Not only are we taking care of their dental care, a lot of times it’s just being in the schools and building that relationship. Sometimes these kids are neglected and they have chaotic family lives, building that trust and being there, it’s comprehensive dental care. We give hugs, too.”