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Students at Dental Day

Winning Smiles

Busloads of schoolchildren poured into the soaring atrium of the Cradle of Aviation Museum, marveling at the shiny Navy Blue Angels fighter jet suspended from the ceiling.

Professor Danielle Piriz’s health students welcomed them at the entrance, the room quickly filling with a thousand kindergartners and first-graders who had come for the annual Give Kids A Smile Day, sponsored by the Nassau County Dental Society.

For many of the children, it was their first trip to a museum, and their first-ever dental screening.  For many health students, it was the first time they had seen – really seen – the need: almost half the children there – and thousands more across Nassau County - had never seen a dentist before that day.  

“It is important for future health care professionals to understand how communities differ in their access to health care so that they can help bridge the gaps to those barriers,” Professor Piriz said.

Every year, the Give Kids A Smile event brings 1,100 children, ages four to eight, from low-income homes across the region to the museum for free dental screenings.  It is part of a national campaign by the American Dental Association Foundation to provide care and raise awareness of the need for good oral health. 

About 30 undergraduate and graduate students in disciplines including community health, health science, public health, and health administration volunteer at the event each year, helping with class registration, data collection, and dental health education. 

It is just one of many ways that students at the School of Health Professions and Human Services are connecting their classroom learning to the real-life needs of the communities they will one day serve.

Sophomore Irene Constantinou of Astoria, NY, a student in Professor Piriz’s Health Promotion and Disease Prevention course, said the event coincided with what they were discussing in class. 

Students at Cradle of Aviation

“We’re doing a unit on oral health and health literacy now, and learning about how many people don’t know that there is a correlation between oral health and general health, including the risk of diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” Constantinou said. “So it’s great that an event like this teaches the importance of making good oral health a part of your lifestyle starting from when you’re very young.”  

For the past several years, about 35% of the children that have been screened have had multiple areas of possible dental cavities and were in urgent need of dental care, notes Professor Piriz, a dental hygienist and 2015 graduate of the Master of Public Health (MPH) program. She has been a longtime volunteer at the event, and a key organizer for the last four years.  

“Almost half of the children we see each year have not been to a dentist before coming to our event, so there is a great need in the community for this service,” she said. The results of each child’s screening are sent home to parents, who also get information in both English and Spanish about local federally qualified health centers such as NuHealth where their children can receive regular dental care for free or reduced cost.  

Second-year MPH student Stephan Joseph, another key organizer, will be responsible for data entry and analysis of information regarding each child’s screening, under the supervision of Dr. Anthony Santella, associate professor of health professions.     

“I jumped at the opportunity to be involved with this because I used to be an elementary school teacher and my father is a dentist,” said Joseph, an intern at the Nassau County Dental Society, where he works with Give Kids A Smile Co-Chair Dr. Joseph Brofsky and his wife, Laurie Brofsky, the event’s volunteer coordinator.  “I could not hesitate when given the chance to be a part of something that will benefit so many kids from underserved backgrounds.”

Joseph taught fourth grade for two years in Delaware through the Teach for America program before deciding to pursue his MPH at Hofstra.  “I plan to go to dental school, and getting my MPH first will give me a better understanding of how healthcare outcomes are linked to social, behavioral, and environmental factors,” he said. “Clinical practice and public health outcomes are connected, and the MPH program will inform my clinical practice in the future.”

A Reason to Smile

In all, about 400 volunteers – including dentists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants -- provided the children with free oral exams and fluoride varnish treatments. The children also toured the museum, watched an educational video, saw a puppet show, shook hands with characters such as Mr. Met, and were entertained by performances by Hofstra’s dance team, who also volunteered their time.

Pranav Bhatt, a 2017 MPH alum, came back to serve at this year’s event.  He was trained as a dentist in Mumbai, India, and is pursuing an advanced standing program so that he can practice in the United States.  

“This lets me give something back to society,” he said, of volunteering. “Dental health is a mirror to your overall health, and it’s important to get that message out there.”

For students like sophomore Irene Constantinou, who is still deciding between a major in community health and health science, interprofessional collaborations such as Give Kids A Smile Day give her more career choices to consider.

“I’m thinking of physical therapy right now,” she said, “but this is a good way to get an inside look at different fields.”