After serving in the Marine Corps, Jennifer Banton thought she would train to be a teacher. That all changed after a visit to the Temple College Dental Hygiene Clinic in 2008.
Banton decided instead to pursue a career in dental hygiene. The secretary in the Dental Hygiene Clinic gave her information on how to apply for the program at Temple College, and Banton was able to get funding from Central Texas Workforce Solutions to fund her training.
Since Banton finished her dental hygiene training in 2010, the lives of thousands of elementary school children in Texas have changed as well.
With the help of her sister-in-law Lila Banton – who also is a graduate of the Dental Hygiene program – and several other dental hygienists, Banton started a program to provide free dental hygiene care to underserved elementary school children. To date, the program has served more than 4,000 children and provided more than $1.1 million worth of free care.
Banton says she first saw the need to provide free dental care for underserved residents when she participated in a Texas Mission of Mercy mobile dental clinic as a requirement for her community dentistry class. After she completed her dental hygiene training, Banton began volunteering for the Texas Dental Association’s Smiles Foundation, which sponsors the Texas Mission of Mercy program. In 2013, she decided to start her own program to help children in her hometown of Burnet.
“A little boy ran up to me at soccer practice, excited about scoring a goal, and I saw cavities between his front teeth,” Banton recalls. “His parents didn’t know about it, but they were able to take care of it as soon as it was identified.”
SMART Smiles, which stands for Saving, Maintaining, and Retaining Their Smiles. She has recruited dentists, hygienists and other volunteers who want to help make free dental hygiene services available to children through the public schools.Banton named her program
SMART Smiles targets elementary schools where at least 55% of the students are on the free or reduced lunch program. When a school wants to participate in the program, it sends consent forms home with students and screening exams with a dentist are scheduled for students who return the forms. Students receive a “dental report card” that explains what areas of concern the dentist found and what preventive treatment the child will receive when a dental hygiene team returns a week later.
On treatment days, Banton’s husband, Zeke, helps load their trailer with 10-12 dental units from the Smiles Foundation and takes them to the participating school. Volunteer dental hygienists provide a preventive dental cleaning, necessary dental sealants, and an application of fluoride varnish. Parents receive a form detailing the care their children received.
Second-year dental hygiene students from Temple College have been helping Banton with her program almost from the start, and many alumni continue to volunteer for the program after they graduate. On a recent Friday, Temple College students contributed more than $15,000 of care to children at an elementary school in Marble Falls.
“I am always so proud when Temple College is represented at our events!” Banton said.
If children require additional dental care, Banton’s group works with local dentists to give students and parents referrals to providers who accept Medicaid/CHIP.
“Access to dental care can be a real issue for some of these children and their families,” said Melissa Machalek, chair of the Dental Hygiene program. “It is amazing what Jennifer has done.”
Banton has received several awards for her work, including KVUE-TV’s Five Who Care award in 2015 and the Texas Dental Association’s Community Service Award in 2018. In October 2019, she received the Alumni of the Year Award from Workforce Solutions of Central Texas. Banton was nominated for this award by Mary Ann Ray, who previously worked as the secretary in the Dental Hygiene program.
Banton said she is grateful to all the staff and instructors in the Dental Hygiene program.
“If it weren’t for their encouragement, love for this profession and selfless example of what we should all aspire to be, I don’t think SMART Smiles would even be here today,” she said.
Anyone interested in volunteering or donating to SMART Smiles may contact Banton at firstname.lastname@example.org.