Rebecca Harshaw, Missouri Southern’s dental hygiene clinical instructor, has heard her students say it over and over again throughout the years.

“They always comment about how they wish they could do more in the community because of the needs they see,” she said.

A week from today, first- and second-year dental hygiene students will have the opportunity to turn those wishes into reality.

Beginning at 9 a.m., close to 70 children from Jasper Elementary School will be given the chance to show off their pearly whites, it’s hoped, well into adulthood.

“Just this week we actually went to a (local) elementary school where we helped medical students give oral screenings, and I was able to look into this kid’s mouth and he actually had an abscessed tooth. It just broke my heart,” said Isel Ibarra, a dental hygiene senior from Purdy who will be graduating in May from Southern. “Being able to do some of the simplest things, such as making sure they are recommended (for professional treatment), definitely makes it rewarding for all of us.”

Last year, the dental hygiene students teamed up with Joplin Community Clinic officials to offer free tooth maintenance work to area children, though not as many children as expected showed up. Harshaw said they’re changing things up a bit for 2020, offering free sealants to third and sixth grade students bused from Jasper Elementary School to the clinic housed inside the Julio S. Leon Health Sciences Building.

“Our students not only get hands-on experience, but they’re also promoting oral health, which is vital,” Harshaw said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cavities are the No. 1 preventable disease in children. Children as young as 12 months can get cavities.

“This is a great opportunity for (the students) to serve … and give back to the community,” Harshaw said.

Southern’s dental hygiene students provided fluoride varnish applications in October to 200 Jasper Elementary students; the varnish is a protective coating painted on teeth to help prevent cavity formation. During those screenings, they also took note to see how many children had sealants on their teeth. When they found a need there, and because of the dental hygiene department’s close relationship with the Jasper School District, “we thought it would be a great school to start with,” Harshaw said.

Jasper officials, Harshaw continued, “found it important enough to go ahead and send (the students) here, so it’s nice to see that, because school districts are limited on money.”

It was Jasper school nurse Sheri Pierce who convinced school officials to participate in the sealant day.

“When (Harshaw) contacted me and asked if we would be interested in doing this, I of course jumped in,” Pierce said in a phone interview. “I try to do everything I can to help my students.”

Twenty-one Southern seniors and 23 juniors will be applying sealants to up to 22 children at a time. Across the hall, the children waiting for sealants will listen to three MSSU nursing students give educational demonstrations about the proper way to brush one’s teeth.

Sealants can prevent 80% of cavities. But 60% of children ages 6 to 11 don’t receive them, according to the CDC.

“It definitely makes me feel like I’m helping (the children) take better care of their teeth,” said senior Kory Andrews, who will be placing sealants directly on teeth next week.

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