GKAS: Interview with Leydis De La Cruz

Give Kids a Smile (GKAS) is one of the largest events undertaken at CDM – up to 700-900 elementary school students are seen each year for oral health instruction and dental screenings. Since the first time Columbia took part in GKAS in 2003, the program has grown from originally seeing just 50-100 children and continues to reach out to more of the local community. Leydis De La Cruz, the Director of Community DentCare Outreach Programs, organizes GKAS in addition to other components of the Community DentCare Network, such as the ElderSmile program. The Community Dentcare Network was established in 1996 through a partnership between Columbia University’s College of Dental Medicine, Harlem Hospital Dental Service, Alianza Domincana and other community-based groups in Washington Heights/Inwood and Harlem to improve access to dental care for underserved children and families through various school based clinics, a dental van and the ElderSmile Program. GKAS is only one of the multiple programs offered to provide dental services to children.

Director De La Cruz commented that it is “crucial to start with the younger children to start prevention early. With some schools you can tell that the oral health condition is very poor because there is no access to care; either students are not insured, underinsured, or the parents don’t have the right information or access to services. If the children are in pain they can’t focus in school, can’t eat properly, impacting behavior inside or outside the classrooms.” This past March marked her eighth year at CDM and with every year she has worked to expand GKAS into additional new schools to meet the needs of the community. CDM has worked with some of the schools, such as PS 189, for many years and the working relationships built continue to establish CDM as a community provider and resource. De La Cruz puts a strong emphasis on follow-up: “GKAS is not a screening and then that’s it. It’s a step to providing other year-round services. We offer them the choice to go to the Pediatric Clinic, the Mobile Dental Center and other affiliate clinics. We screen and then we provide a solution.” She hopes that in the near future the resources will exist so that GKAS can take place several times a year.

The ElderSmile program targets the other end of the age range; it reaches out to senior citizens in different senior centers in Northern Manhattan. The need of this population is high since many of the senior citizens are on a fixed income and often cannot afford dental services. The services provided by ElderSmile include oral health instruction and informational sessions on diabetes and hypertension because of the strong correlations between these medical conditions and oral health. Screening is conducted for these conditions and then treatment referral and transportation to subsequent health appointments are provided. Groups of CDM faculty members & students volunteer their time once or twice a month for this program and the students gain critical patient exposure through the experience.

This year’s GKAS was run by a team of over 100 that included students, pediatric residents, and community dental providers. The student body is the key component of the community outreach events and De La Cruz wants to utilize these active future dentists to increase outreach and continue CDM’s legacy as “a staple in the community.” Through GKAS she sees the opportunity to “raise a generation that’s excited about brushing and hygiene and going to the dentist without fear. They could possibly become dentists and expand the workforce to become as diverse as the city and country is.” The message she has for current and future students is “the reality is that our smile is the first thing that we show the world and everyone should have a nice smile. Access to dental care is a right not a luxury! This work is very rewarding in itself and some students become so engaged and leave here knowing that being a dentist is not an isolated career. They are now part of a chain to make change. They are active agents of change.”