BELLINGHAM - In the music room at Parkview Elementary School, dentist Mel Agan greeted her first young patient of the morning - a kindergartener lying on a dental chair and waiting for an exam.
"I had garlic this morning so I'm going to put a mask on so you don't smell it," Agan said to the boy to put him at ease before slipping on her mask. "Big open. Wow! What do you have in there? Have you been eating lettuce?"
"Celery," he told her.
The boy was one of 13 Parkview students to receive a dental screening from Interfaith Community Health Center at their school Tuesday, Nov. 19.
The exams mark the first time that Interfaith's Mobile Dental Program is serving students in Bellingham School District.
"It's good, especially being the first Bellingham school visit for us," said Meagan Swanlund, Interfaith's dental access coordinator.
Under the contract signed by Interfaith and the school district last month, a dental team will visit Bellingham schools to provide care - dental screenings, fluoride treatments and oral-hygiene instructions - to students whose parents have given their consent.
Interfaith will make such services available to all students at 19 elementary and middle schools in Bellingham during the school year, regardless of their families' ability to pay.
"This is helping to bridge a gap that we know exists for many families," said J.Marie Riche, interim communications manager for the school district.
Sealants, which protect teeth from decay, will be added to the services next school year.
The school district is making the space available at its schools, and the preventive dental services will be paid for with insurance or on a sliding-fee scale.
But no child will be turned away, organizers said.
"We want to make sure that all of our students have access to dental care," said Parkview Principal Jane Tromburg.
Interfaith will contact parents if their children need follow-up care.
Bellingham school officials said providing access is an important part of efforts to provide equity for students. And caring for students is central to their education.
"If students come to school with pain in their mouth," Tromburg said, "that pain in their mouth would get in the way of their learning."
Preventive dental care for Whatcom County children also is a concern because local kindergarteners and third-graders in public schools have higher rates of tooth decay than their peers statewide, according to the county's 2010 Smile Survey.
Interfaith started its Mobile Dental Program in 2000. Its dental team brings basic dental care to students at their schools in the Mount Baker, Nooksack, Meridian, Blaine, Ferndale and Lynden school districts as well as in Bellingham.
Reach Kie Relyea at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2234.