Giving Children Something to Smile About

Times Staff Writer

Cesar Orozco smiles bashfully, barely revealing his teeth, in a Polaroid photo pinned to a bulletin board next to a gray dentist’s chair. The 5-year-old started coming this year to Children’s Dental Health Center in Costa Mesa with what volunteer Mary Ree described as a “bombed-out mouth: teeth rotted down to little brown nubs.”

He cried constantly during his first visit and still tears up during the extensive root canals and extractions necessary to repair his teeth. But after each visit he hugs everyone in the office. His dentist keeps a snapshot of him in her wallet.

Such relationships are possible because each of the 2,500 children who come to the center sees the same dentist each time, said Ree, who runs the center, part of the Assistance League of Newport-Mesa, in Costa Mesa. Ree, 53, of Fountain Valley, is vice president of the league.

Children of low-income families who are students in the Newport-Mesa School District can receive services at the center ranging from cleanings to braces, for fees that top out at $60 for a root canal. The dental office is benefiting from a grant from the Holiday Campaign of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund.


“This is not a clinic,” said Ree. “This is a place where we really get to know them and we have a chance to see them grow up into healthy children.... For Cesar, his nutrition is going to be affected by being able to eat without pain. His whole life is going to change.”

Most of the $10,000 the league received last year went to another program, Operation School Bell, which provides clothing to low-income children. Ree said it is difficult to raise money for the dental center.

“People don’t get as excited giving money for instruments they can’t pronounce,” she said. “It’s not the immediate gratification of putting clothes on a child, but it’s just as worthy a cause.”

More money would mean new dental chairs -- the newest in the office are a decade old -- and updated equipment. Between appointments, the dentists and assistants repair malfunctioning machines themselves.

Dr. Lisa Kato is one of 11 dentists who work at the center once or twice a week for $300 a day. They fill cavities and clean teeth in an office where four patients’ chairs are divided by low walls. Children of various ages lie in the chairs, the littlest scampering off to choose a treat from a cardboard treasure chest of stickers and plastic spider rings after they are finished.

High school freshman Jose Aragon has been coming to the center since first grade, seeing Kato for half those years. “I wouldn’t like having to go to a different dentist every time,” he said after having a cavity filled recently. “When Dr. Kato treats me she doesn’t go rough, and that makes it really not scary to come here.”




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