RICHMOND -- The first patient tiptoed to the chair Friday morning at Peres Elementary School, her arms rigid at her sides, little fists clenched.
"Would you like a boost?" said the dentist in the white coat, eyebrows raised and reassuring. The girl nodded.
With a hearty groan, the dentist picked up the 6-year-old first-grader and nestled her into the blue foamy chair.
"Now we're going to polish your teeth and make them pretty." A smile crept onto her face.
Dr. Daniel Tanita has done volunteer dental work for the children at Peres since the late 1990s, devoting his time, expertise and chair-side manner to help improve the dental health of thousands of kids who live in Richmond's Iron Triangle community. His unswerving commitment to helping improve the dental health of children has been a driving force behind the restoration and expansion of the clinic at the school.
When he started volunteering at Peres in 1997, he gave dental checkups in a converted janitorial closet.
"We had one little chair and no windows," Tanita said, chuckling. "But it was a start."
Friday marked the culmination of a longer journey to permanently ensconce a full-service dental facility within an elementary school, a novel idea that Tanita said may be the only one of its kind in the state. In his offices, Tanita can do everything from applying resin sealant to kids' teeth -- a vital preventive measure to stave off cavities and decay --
In late September, school and community leaders marked the opening of a full-service dental clinic just inside the school's front doors. The facility has a reception room and two full-service chairs, and is equipped with all the tools of modern dentistry, able to deliver free care to more than 500 students. Tanita works here for free about nine hours per month.
The clinic was built with a $500,000 investment from Measure D, a school construction bond passed in 2010. It runs with one part-time administrative staff member and the free labor of Tanita, his friend and colleague Michael Stokes, and a staff member from each man's private practice.
"It's a sustainable model," Tanita said.
Stokes agreed. The son of one of Richmond's first African-American dentists, Joseph Stokes, Michael Stokes has his own practice in Pinole and has volunteered alongside Tanita for years.
"(Tanita) brought me in," Stokes said. "With some dentists, getting them to volunteer their services is like pulling teeth," Stokes said, smiling at the pun. "But (Tanita) really enjoys what he does here, and I do, too."
Born in Arizona, Tanita, 64, has lived in the Bay Area for more than 30 years. He runs a full-service private practice in San Pablo with a staff of seven, and is active in a number of West Contra Costa business and civic organizations.
But the pull to serve has always been strong, he said.
"Years ago, I found myself looking for an opportunity to reach out to a population in Richmond that had tremendous need, and I knew that some early dental work and education for the kids could make a big impact on their lives," Tanita said. "I am not sure exactly where it came from but probably from family. I always admired my grandfather, who was a Protestant minister and was really committed to helping others."
A few years ago, Tanita's little clinic hit a snag. He had to close because the school district could no longer afford a part-time clerk to keep track of records and appointments.
Tanita decided to call on a friend, and a patient, in a high place.
West Contra Costa school board President Charles Ramsey went to his dentist for a regular checkup, and what he got was an earful.
"Dr. Tanita pushed it hard, he said we had to find a way to reopen the clinic," Ramsey said.
Measure D's passing in 2010 paved the way for the new facility and helped rehire one part-time staffer. Now, with another bond measure, Measure E, passing last week, the district may be able to expand on the innovative idea and build more clinics at other schools.
What's key, Tanita said, is to prevail on the public that incorporating preventive dental care into schools is a viable approach to public education, especially in low-income communities where dental care may be unaffordable for most families.
When the little girl's exam was completed Friday, she was all smiles.
"You were very, very brave," Tanita said, smiling. "We are all very proud of you."
The girl put on her pink backpack and hurried back to class, getting a "goody bag" of toothbrushes and toothpaste on her way out.
"Sometimes there's some tears, always some nervousness, but we want them to have a good experience and look forward to coming back to the dentist," Tanita said.
Tanita noted that the child had seven teeth sealed and all her teeth polished, work that could set an uninsured family back more than $400.
Patient No. 2 of the day walked in. Tanita and Stokes would get to more than two dozen that morning.
The boy, age 7, had his fists balled up into his brown trousers. He wore a frown and looked down toward his sneakers.
"I can see you're a brave big boy," Tanita said, stooping down to the child. "Can you get in this chair and we can count how many teeth you have?"
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.
HOMETOWN: San Pablo
CLAIM TO FAME: Dentist who pioneered the installation of a full-service dentistry in a Richmond elementary school.
QUOTE: "Being able to do something for kids healthwise that their parents maybe can't afford and improving their lives, that makes it all worth it to me."
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