campus news

Dental school partners with TeamSmile, Buffalo Bills to provide free dental care to kids

Young girl smiling at the camera.

The School of Dental Medicine is partnering with the national organization TeamSmile to provide free dental care to elementary school children on May 14. This child is participating in a TeamSmile event in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2019. Photo: Scott Audette/Tampa Bay Rays


Published May 13, 2024

“A lot of children we serve haven’t ever been to the dentist, haven’t been frequently or had a bad experience. We create an environment that is less stressful for them. ”
Kami Thomas, director

More than 240 Western New York elementary school students will receive free dental care while visiting with Billy, the Buffalo Bills mascot, on May 14, at Highmark Stadium.

The School of Dental Medicine is partnering with TeamSmile, a Kansas City, Mo.-based nonprofit organization that pairs oral health professionals with professional athletic organizations to provide dental care to underserved children in communities across the country.

The half-day event that begins at 9 a.m. will be far from a regular trip to the dentist. Visitors will be encouraged to have fun before and after receiving dental care.

Eight faculty members from UB’s dental school and 25 dental students, along with residents in advanced education in pediatric dentistry, advanced education in general dentistry and the Erie County Medical Center, will provide care to the young patients in 13 treatment units and 16 hygiene units. This includes dental checks, cleanings, fluoride treatments, X-rays and, in some cases, teeth fillings or extractions at no cost to the children. In addition, about 100 volunteers will be on site to ensure the day runs smoothly.

Meanwhile, representatives from national partner Colgate will offer educational games and activities that focus on dental health, and the children will have the opportunity to dance to DJ-inspired music, have their faces painted and possibly meet a few Bills players.

The children will arrive on buses from seven public schools in Buffalo and the Southtowns and receive dental care in units set up in two suites overlooking the playing field. 

“A lot of children we serve haven’t ever been to the dentist, haven’t been frequently or had a bad experience,” says Kami Thomas, director of TeamSmile. “We create an environment that is less stressful for them. We want the children to come away with a positive feeling about dental care.”

Inclusive environment for kids with disabilities

This marks the second year for the dental school to participate in a TeamSmile event, but the first one at the Bills’ stadium. The last event included education and screenings.

“We wanted to include schools we haven’t had the opportunity to work with in past outreach events that are also in close proximity to the Bills’ stadium,” says Meelin Dian Chin Kit-Wells, clinical assistant professor in the dental school, who is heading up the UB portion of the event. “And we definitely wanted to include Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center, which is located near the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue, as our event falls on the second anniversary of the Tops massacre. We want those children to know we support them and they are loved.”

This year’s TeamSmile features a pilot program for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and will include students from Buffalo Hearing and Speech Center (BHSC). The dental school will collaborate with occupational therapists and OT students at UB to provide care for approximately 20 children.

“Children with IDD often have unmet and significant health care needs, including dental care,” Thomas notes. “This pilot program is committed to delivering equitable care through transportation, suitable conditions and care plans to address individual patient needs.”

Prior to the event, OT faculty and students will complete interviews with every child from BHSC who will be attending, according to Elisabeth Thompson, clinical instructor of health sciences in the Department of Pediatrics and Community Dentistry, who also serves as director of occupational therapy at University Pediatric Dentistry.

 “We will use that information to support each child using proactive strategies during the dental cleaning and exams,” Thompson explains. “This will include treating the children in sensory-adapted dental environments specifically designed for them.”

Chin Kit-Wells notes the event not only will provide quality dental care to children of all abilities, but it will also provide the participating dental students with an excellent opportunity to treat children with IDD.

Dental care going forward

One of the goals of TeamSmile is to connect children with ongoing dental care. When children register for the event, their parents are asked if they have a dental care home.

 “We’ve found through the years that over half of the families do not,” Thomas says.

To remedy this situation, a dental school representative identifies dentists in the Buffalo area who will provide dental care at no cost or through Medicaid. She will provide this list to parents after the event and follow up throughout the year to ensure they connect with a dental care provider.

 Since its inception in 2007, TeamSmile has conducted more than 275 programs, served more than 55,000 children and provided more than $20 million in free dental care and oral health education nationwide.

The upcoming event is one of many outreach initiatives in the community that the dental school leads or participates in.

“UB is incredibly involved in TeamSmile; it’s a true equal partner,” Thomas says. “We don’t find that with most dental schools. UB provides so many volunteers and is very engaged.”