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Rollin', Rollin', Rollin': Van Drives Oral Health

By Gordon Walek

Two by two, the Perspectives-Calumet Middle School students marched bravely forth, out the front door of the South Side charter school to the idling Winnebago parked on the May Street sidewalk. The beginning of summer vacation? Not exactly.

The dental van pulls up outside Perspectives-Calumet.

Gordon Walek

Greeting the youth were Dr. Amy Martin, two fellow dentists, and two assistants, all gowned, scrubbed and ready to perform a variety of dental procedures on Perspectives students who (with parental consent) had signed up to take advantage of the service.

The care is provided free to the students and their families through a combination of health insurance reimbursements and supplemental grant funding.

For the next couple of hours, Martin and her team treated 12 patients in the Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center dental van, an unusual vehicle tricked out with two dental chairs, an X-ray machine, a waiting room, an office and the myriad lights, machinery and utensils required to provide professional dental services.

The van — a key element of Illinois Masonic’s dental residency program — has been making the rounds of community health centers, nursing homes, homeless shelters and assisted living facilities for years, providing critical dental services for people of limited means, for people whose priorities or abilities have often relegated preventive dental care to the back burner.

With two dental chairs, three dentists, two assistants and two patients, the dental van has little room to spare.

Gordon Walek



New to the van’s circuit are the five middle schools — Perspectives, Ames, Marquette, Reavis and Orozco — that are part of Elev8, a national initiative funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies to help middle school students with multiple supports. These include comprehensive on-site school-based health services, before- and after-school learning opportunities, and effective mentoring by adults.

The dental care — funded by a $124,000 grant from Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation — complements the other services provided by the new health centers, which recently opened in each of the five Elev8 schools. The centers offer health care to students, their families and community residents.

“We do full-service dentistry,” said Dr. Martin, as she and her staff prepared the van for its first patients of the day. “A typical first-time visit will include an exam, X-rays and a cleaning, if needed.” Based on the exam results, follow-up care could involve filling decayed teeth, extractions and even root canals. “We see a lot of decay,” she said, “a lot of teeth that need to be extracted.”

Dr. Amy Martin, leader of the dental van team, and AmeriCorps volunteer Sam Perryman, discuss the day's schedule of events.

Gordon Walek


Meanwhile, Dr. Sanjeet Parmar and Dr. Jennifer Schear, with help from assistants Omar Abarca (the van’s wheelman) and Nora Hernandez, began poking around the mouths of the first two patients.

The students didn’t exactly do cartwheels up the van’s steps. And AmeriCorps volunteer Sam Perryman, who scheduled the appointments and got the parental consent, had to apply his highly refined herding instincts to maintain the smooth flow of patients from school to van and back.

But van staff and Perryman quickly put the young patients at ease — a significant accomplishment insofar as some of the kids hadn’t had much experience in the dental chair.

The dentists typically will spend 45 minutes to an hour with each patient and treat between eight and 15 students on each monthly visit to the five Elev8 schools. For many of those students, noted Dr. Martin, the van represents their only exposure to professional dental care.

Dr. Sanjeet Parmar and dental assistant Omar Abarca examine a middle school student on a recent dental van stop at Perspectives-Calumet Middle School.

Gordon Walek



“A major goal of the Elev8 program is to ensure that students thrive later in life,” said Chris Brown, LISC/Chicago’s director of education programs, who oversees the Elev8 program in Chicago.

“That applies to academic success, of course, but also to matters of health and physical fitness," he said. "We see the dental van as a way to educate students on the value of dental treatment, and as a means of putting them on the path to good oral health. It’s an essential part of their education.”

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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