Click photo to enlarge
Dental assistant Lupe Mendoza, left, and Dr. Aliba Araica, right, pull a baby tooth on Angel Gomez, center, 8, a third grader at Cambridge Elementary School in Concord, Calif., on Friday, March 21, 2014. Contra Costa County's only mobile dental clinic made a stop at Cambridge Elementary School where low-income children, many of whom wouldn't otherwise see a dentist, receive care. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

CONCORD -- Angel Gomez knew the drill -- figuratively speaking, anyway.

The Concord third-grader mounted the steps leading to a door in the large van parked outside his school and marched straight into the office at one end, plopping onto a reclining chair.

Angel had been here twice before for an exam and cleaning; today the dentist was going to extract the decayed baby tooth that was giving him trouble when he ate.

He whimpered as she began administering the anesthetic, but quickly calmed down when a dental assistant instructed the boy to count with her to 15 in Spanish.

"Uno, dos, tres ....," Thelma Porras said in a sing-song voice as a small voice followed her prompt.

Minutes later 8-year-old Angel was all smiles when a second dental assistant popped the offending tooth in a plastic container shaped like a molar and presented him with the memento.

So ended another visit to the Contra Costa Ronald McDonald Care Mobile, a dentist's office on wheels that has provided free treatment for thousands of young people since it hit the road 10 years ago this month.

The only mobile service of its kind in the county, the van makes four stops a week in half a dozen communities from Richmond to Antioch, targeting neighborhoods in which at least 75 percent of the children are receiving free or reduced-cost school lunches.


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Providing the outreach is the Dental Collaborative of Contra Costa, a joint effort between the county and four nonprofits that provides both preventive and restorative care for youths up to the age of 19.

Patients receive X-rays, routine cleanings, fluoride treatments and sealants on molars to prevent cavities as well as have fillings, root canals and extractions done.

Those staffing the van had treated 5,086 children as of Dec. 31, 2013; over the past decade the collaborative also has given school presentations on the ABC's of oral hygiene to 53,861 youngsters in low-income areas and screened approximately 42,000 students.

The help is available for the uninsured and, as is the case with undocumented immigrants, the uninsurable. The goal, however, is to help parents obtain coverage for their children so they can receive ongoing care from a regular provider, thereby freeing up appointments for others who lack insurance, said Chris Grazzini, program manager for John Muir Community Health Alliance.

Among the needy have been the 10-year-old girl who had never seen a dentist before she showed up for her first visit last year. Over the next nine months she had 14 appointments for X-rays, a cleaning and fillings for 11 cavities.

And then there was the teenage boy who already had had both front teeth pulled in his native Philippines and needed more extractions as well as multiple fillings.

The mobile clinic's dentist fitted him with removable dentures and witnessed a transformation.

"He was so happy," said Dr. Alida Araica. "He told us, 'Now I can smile.'"

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.

FREE DENTAL CARE FOR KIDS
The Ronald McDonald Care Mobile will be coming to East Contra Costa County on Friday, stopping at Pittsburg Health Center, 2311 Loveridge Road, Pittsburg.
The van will be there starting at 9 a.m. Preregistration is required by calling 925-580-9899. Spanish-speaking staff are available in making an appointment.