HEARTS OF THE COMMUNITY: Building smiles for kids in need

Charitable dental service in Sidney working hard to help youth in need.

Members of ORCCA and the Sidney Pier Hotel pose after the hotel held a fundraiser for the dental service last year.

Heather Burkett will never forget the day she and Dr. Mitra Hashemi came up with the idea to try and help children whose families had difficulty affording good dental care.

It was five years ago, she said, during a visit to the Hashemi’s dental practice. Burkett said they spoke about one of Hashemi’s patients that day, a 19-year-old who had come in to have teeth removed, but who had refused the dentist’s “charity” after she offered to help.

It was only one example of how many young people have not had access to good dental care and face pain and confidence issues as a result. The pair decided then that they could do something about it.

“We really are the land of opportunity here in Canada,” said Burkett, who is now the chair of the society that runs the Oral Care for Children and Adolescents (ORCAA) Clinic in Sidney.

Burkett, who had been a principal within the Saanich school district, had also met a student with behavioral issues caused by the state of their teeth.

“A doctor found out that this student had been in pain for more than two years. I had never seen a case quite like that.”

Those experiences led the pair to look for ways to bring basic dental care to children from families with low incomes, who might not be able to afford the health service. Burkett said they found research that indicated there were around 500 children on the Gulf Islands and Saanich Peninsula who could use better dental care.

So, the work began out of Hashemi’s dental practice in Sidney. She would provide free basic dental care to children from impoverished families from time to time, while Burkett and other volunteers pounded the pavement, looking for equipment and supply donations — as well as other dentists willing to donate their time to the cause.

Burkett said once the Sidney-by-the-Sea Rotary Club got on board, other companies, groups and individuals began stepping up with donations to help the new society meet its goal — to open a small clinic. They would negotiate the use of a school portable for that clinic at Sidney Elementary School, which opened in March 2015.

Since then, the society has been able to keep the clinic open four days a week, hired one staff member — Lauren Hafey, a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) — and bring in area dentists who are volunteering to help children. Among the volunteers who work at the clinic are the dentists, a pair of specialists, hygienists and other CDAs. Burkett added they are always looking for more dentists to help out — not only to maintain their service levels, but to hopefully one day be open five days a week.

Since the clinic opened a year ago, Burkett said the children they see — more than 100 over the last two months — have an average of eight cavities each.

Hashemi said a trip to the ORCCA clinic is often a child’s first experience of dental care — or are coming back to a clinic after a long time between dental visits. She admitted the society’s own budget estimates for the cost of delivering services were shot, almost immediately.

“It was an eye-opener,” she explained. “We see so many serious cases. For example, one four-year-old needed her baby teeth extracted. They were in rough shape.”

The clinic, she continued, is a place of healing — not just a dental office. For many youth, improving their smiles leads to less pain and even a boost in confidence.

This month, the ORCCA Dental Clinic Society was recognized for their volunteer efforts with a Hearts of the community award. Yet, they are always looking ahead. Burkett said they are always looking for supporters, even people who wish to sponsor individual young patients.

“In general, we are sustainable,” said Hashemi. “We are standing on solid ground.”

For more details about ORCCA, visit orccadental.org or call the clinic at 778-351-3393.