Special Smiles

It takes a special kind of person to travel to hundreds of Kansas schools week after week, year after year, lugging heavy equipment, to treat the smiles of thousands of underserved school kids. That’s what the heroes who make up GraceMed’s Dental Outreach Team do with inspiring enthusiasm.

Then there’s the fearless leader of the team, Doreen Eyler.

While most of us mere mortals have weekends, Doreen hits the road as a volunteer to provide dental screenings at dozens of Special Olympics competitions all across Kansas.

Doreen Eyler, RDH

“There’s a real need for dental care among special-needs kids,” Doreen explained. “For the most part, they don’t have the discipline to establish good hygiene habits, and even when they go to the dentist, it’s difficult to give them the care they need because it’s just hard for them to be still in the chair.”

The program Doreen participates in is called “Special Smiles.” It’s part of a full range of screenings at each competition that includes optometry, behavioral health, hearing and nutrition. “You’re there as part of the event,” Doreen said, “so the kids see their friends and peers getting the same care and there’s a greater receptiveness. It’s a golden opportunity to see how they’re doing.”

For Doreen, it’s also a chance to be a part of an organization with a long and proud history dating all the way back to the founding of Special Olympics by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968. After meeting the Mrs. Kennedy Shriver about the lack of access to healthcare for many special needs children, Dr. Steven Perlman started the Special Olympics Special Smiles program to provide dental care to athletes at the events.

From the beginning, it was a priority for Dr. Perlman to establish a single set of shared standards for data collection at all Special Smiles screenings. This would ensure that a clear picture of the oral health of the athletes could be communicated to care providers where referrals were needed. To ensure the integrity of the data, it was necessary to train screeners in a process referred to as “calibration.” Doreen received her calibration training in Austin Texas in 2018 from Dr. Perlman himself.

“They were holding a competition down there, so he just traveled there to train us,” Doreen said. “The program has grown to include more than 200 events each year all over the U. S. and in more than 100 countries.”

Although she has help from other volunteers, including Holly Blick and Megan Richardson from GraceMed, Doreen is currently the only “calibrated” screener in Kansas. She sees it as a direct extension of the work she is doing for GraceMed.

“Our mission goes beyond treating people,” Doreen said. “It goes all the way to giving them hope and a sense of their self worth. That’s why I love being associated with Special Olympics. These athletes are people who are unfortunately overlooked and underserved outside of this arena. And being here, you get to see what it does to their sense of who they are and who they can be. You even get to contribute to that.”

In addition to providing dental screenings, Special Smiles also equips each athlete with custom-fitted mouth guards which can be especially important for contact sports like basketball. During the pandemic, they’ve had to rely more on Zoom screenings, but Doreen is looking forward to hitting the road for some fall events. She’s also looking for a few recruits to help her. Know anyone who wants to volunteer to help her bring out smiles that are extra special? The “calibration” to reach Doreen is (316)866-2053 or deyler@gracemed.org.

This post originated in our State of Grace quarterly news magazine. If you would like to receive the magazine, please visit this link and give us your information. Thanks!