A six-year-old girl in Key West needs $10,000 worth of dental work, and a nine-year-old boy stopped smiling two years ago when kids at school started making fun of two discolored teeth.
In addition to the social stigma that can forever impact the life of a child, these kids, whose families have been able to afford regular dental check-ups, often spend their days in severe pain.
"It's a proven fact that if a kid's in pain, he's can't pay attention in school; he can't eat properly and his socialization suffers because he doesn't laugh or smile for fear of being made fun of," said Marty Hirsch, a member of the Key West Rotary Club, which has spent the past 11 years raising money for children's dental care.
All money raised at the rotary club's annual Help a Child Smile golf tournament, scheduled for Jan. 18 at the Key West Golf Club, is used to pay local dentists who treat local children.
Hirsch just joined the club in 2011, and has since become involved in fund-raising for the dental fund.
"My frustration since I've been chair of the golf tournament is that the club has been doing this great thing for 11 years, yet when I go to speak with local companies to solicit donations, they have no clue that the tournament happens, or what the money is used for," said Hirsch, who has made it his goal to spread the word about the program that can save the smiles of Key West kids.
"In 11 years, we've raised about $120,000 and helped hundreds of kids," he said, explaining that the late Robert Walker, a former principal and schools superintendent, created the Rotary dental fund years ago upon seeing the need in low-income students who had never been to a dentist for any sort of preventive care or check-ups.
"If that six-year-old girl could have received any sort of preventive dental care, she never would have needed $10,000 worth of repairs, as the problems have now gotten up into her gums," Hirsch said.
The child is one extreme example, and she is slated to receive oral surgery at Miami Children's Hospital, as local dentists said the problems were too severe for them to correct, Hirsch said.
But usually, the way the programs works, he said, is that a school nurse identified a needy child who needs dental care.
"The nurse reaches out to the parents, and if she feels finances are keeping them from covering treatment, then she gives the parents a voucher to cover a preliminary exam, x-rays and diagnosis by one of our local dentists who treats children," Hirsch said.
Once the dentist makes a determination of a treatment plan, he works with the Rotary club, which pays for the treatment.
"We're very fortunate in this town, as our dentists discount their treatment prices, or even offer to do the work pro bono and only charge us for the materials needed," Hirsch said, adding that the current rotation of dentists doing the work includes Doctors Guzman and Mayfield.
But funds have dwindled, and the Rotary Club currently has a waiting list of children hoping to see a dentist before their smile is forever replace by the sullen look of a child in pain.
"Right now, our only limitation is the availability of funds," Hirsch said. "There are so many kids that we have to prioritize, but you know the pain for each child is getting worse every week, and we really want to focus on preventive medicine."
The Rotary Club recently began sending dentists and hygienists into schools to conduct preliminary, non-invasive dental screenings.
"We sent out 300 permission slips to at-risk kids, printed in English, Spanish and Creole," Hirsch said. "We got 70 slips back, so we were able to screen 70 kids. These are kids whose families can barely pay their rent, not to mention annual dental check-ups."
Hirsch is hoping the Jan. 18 golf tournament refills the club's coffers for the coming year, but also added that the club will gratefully accept any donations from people not wanting to be involved in the tournament.
For information, or to make a donation, visit the Key West Rotary Club's dental fund online at helpachildsmilekw.org or email Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.