Kids' Community Dental Clinic

Nathaniel Batte, 8, gets a look at his molars with some new fashion glasses courtesy of his dentist. (Courtesy of Bryan Mahoney / February 12, 2013)

Nathaniel Batte leans back in his chair and inspects his purplish mouth through his newly acquired sunglasses. Holding the hand mirror a few inches from his face, the 8-year-old likes what he sees so far.

His hygienist, however, isn't as happy with the prognosis.

“That purple means bacteria,” Marsha Center tells him. “That's our enemy, right?”

They'll have a talk later about proper brushing techniques and avoiding the worst things for Nathaniel's teeth: Coke and Cheetos. At this office that conversation will last as long as it takes — patients sometimes will be in the dentist's chair for an hour or two, hoping that if they're good they'll get a shot at the overflowing chest of toys nearby.

The children and parents who visit the Kids' Community Dental Clinic on Elmwood Avenue in Burbank receive an education by the time they leave. Volunteer hygienists and dentists at the clinic teach prevention and proper oral care to some 800 kids a year plus another 5,000 in schools, and for a small fee ensure these children's teeth last their lifetimes.

“We have a mission — it's not just the business end of dentistry. It's all those kids who fall through the cracks,” said Ana Gomez, a dental assistant at the clinic.

This month the clinic is taking its mission to everyone under age 18. It will offer free dental screenings every weekday except Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The clinic hopes to stop problems in children's teeth before they start.

“In our culture people want whitening, they want braces, but they don't work on the decay,” said Dale Gorman, the clinic's executive director.

Gorman has run the program since 2008. She coordinates the volunteer hygienists and about 30 area dentists who perform dental work at the Elmwood facility or conduct screenings at schools.

The clinic began in the basement of Providence St. Joseph Medical Center to help families with dental emergencies. Today it operates from a bright yellow building behind McKinley Elementary, serving low-income families from Burbank and surrounding areas.

For about $15 families can bring kids to the clinic, a dentists' office where kids actually want to hang out. Artists from Cartoon Network have painted every door with characters from their shows, and the staff spends as long as it takes to get their patients comfortable.

“I like it because I get my teeth clean,” said 8-year-old Nathaniel, a future Los Angeles Laker sporting the sunglasses he earned for his patience in the dentist's chair.

His mother, Aracelly, said the clinic makes the experience of visiting the dentist a soothing one.

“It's the same thing as a private dentist — and they don't try to give you something you don't need,” she said.

On Friday, registered dental hygienist Marsha Center oversaw the work of students from the West L.A. College Dental Hygiene Program while they scrubbed Nathaniel's teeth and those of his 3-year-old brother, Ethan.

Though it's hard to get a 3-year-old to sit still, it's harder for Center and her staff to get families involved in the clinic's programs. There's almost a 20% no-show rate because for many families, this is the only appointment they have to keep, and many parents themselves never visited the dentist as children.

Those who do use the program have access to dentists and specialists who will take care of any mouth malady and send their patients home smiling.

“If we can't get it done here there's no other place for these kids to go,” Gomez said.

In the bright yellow building among cartoon characters and pictures of smiling kids, they get it done.

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BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he isn't attending conventions, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter: @818NewGuy.