God’s work: Smile Express going the extra mile for West Virginia’s kids

MORGANTOWN — Since September 2018, the Monongalia County Health Department’s mobile dental clinic known as Smile Express has delivered preventative dental care to more than 1,700 students in 63 schools across six counties. 

Counting repeat customers, Smile Express Coordinator Tiffany Summerlin said that number is likely north of 2,500. 

Pretty impressive when you consider an entire school year was essentially lost to COVID-19. 

Extremely impressive when you consider it’s largely been accomplished by two women and a 20-year-old Winnebago. 

Summerlin, a dental hygienist, has been the driving force behind the mobile dentistry program, literally and figuratively, since its inception.   

Every assessment, exam or cleaning provided to every student who steps aboard ol’ Smiley is done by Summerlin. 

Velvet Urgo, a dental assistant with MCHD for the last 24 years, has been her right hand from the start. 

“Her heart is as big as this room. She inspires me to get up every morning and do what we do,” Summerlin said of Urgo, during a recent report to the Monongalia County Board of Health. 

She offered an example of that heart with the story of a 5-year-old girl the pair recently encountered at a Harrison County school. 

Sixteen of the child’s 20 primary teeth were decayed. She had three abscesses. 

Her family, which had recently arrived from Mexico, had no insurance and no means to cover the roughly $1,300 needed for the $2,700 treatment plan through MCHD.  

So, Urgo rang up America’s ToothFairy, a resource provider that supports nonprofit clinics providing treatment for underserved children. 

Summerlin said America’s ToothFairy gives annual grants to assist with dental care for young patients — but it wasn’t grant time, and those grants are typically up to $500. 

“Velvet had it in mind that she was just going to call and ask. She explained the story of this little girl … and they ended up sending a check to cover the entire treatment plan for this child,” Summerlin said. 

“There’s a lot of links in that chain that have to happen, but without Velvet’s thought and her love for the patients we see and going out of her way to make that happen, it wouldn’t even be a possibility for that child to have any dental care done.” 

Urgo said she was affected by the condition of the girl’s teeth. 

“I had never seen anything like her case before in person,” she said. “I just felt like something needed to happen. My heart went out to her, and after Tiffany spoke to her mom, you could tell they were struggling a lot.” 

Urgo has been known to log up to 5 miles a day walking young patients between Smile Express and the various schools they visit. This is in addition to her other duties charting, sterilizing instruments, assembling toothbrush bags and providing oral health instruction. 

“I never thought when I started here my job would be in mobile dentistry. It’s very rewarding, but at the same time, we hear a lot of sad stories and see a lot of sad things,” Urgo said, explaining it’s not uncommon to encounter high school students who’ve never been in a dentist’s office or kids who don’t have a toothbrush at home. 

“We’re glad we’re able to go out and provide services to the students because many of these kids wouldn’t receive any dental services if it wasn’t for us traveling to the school and providing them,” she said. 

Urgo said she considers Summerlin a mentor from whom she’s gained the ability to adapt when things stop going according to plan. 

It’s that tenacity that aided Summerlin in securing a $500,000 grant from Aetna for a new mobile clinic that could be on the road as early as September. 

Unlike Smiley, it won’t be a converted RV, but a brand-new, built-to-spec dental office on wheels. 

The new vehicle will support the continued growth of the Smile Express program, allowing it to operate year-round as it begins to add addiction recovery centers to its list of regular stops. 

Outgoing Monongalia County Health Officer Dr. Lee Smith asked the board of health to consider how it can reward the “heroes of public health” on its roster, like Summerlin and Urgo.

“To me, this whole dental experience we’ve had here is really a core public health function. We reach people who otherwise wouldn’t have that — 2,500 kids in six counties. That speaks for itself,” he said. 

Urgo said she isn’t really in it for the recognition. 

It’s a mission. 

“It’s God’s work, for sure,” MCHD Executive Director Anthony DeFelice said. “And they’re doing it.” 

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