Gracious Smiles offers dental care to Camden school children

BY Lauren Wanko, Correspondent |

Four-year-old Cynthia Johnson shows off her pearly whites. The Camden resident is getting a free dental screening at an office in KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy.

“I brush my teeth good and I eat vegetables so I can get healthy,” Cynthia said. “And after that I brush my teeth some more, then I brush my teeth once a day and once a night.”

“The gateway to a healthy community is through a healthy smile so that’s why we’re here,” said Gracious Smiles CEO Dr. Melba Bonelli Henderson.

Henderson, who also owns a private practice in Marlton, examines and counts the children’s teeth. She and husband David Henderson launched the nonprofit Gracious Smiles in 2014.

“We do an exam and a cleaning for the children, and we also make sure that all the teeth that are permanent teeth that need to be sealed, we take care of sealants for the kids as well to try to prevent the disease process,” Henderson said.

She also fills cavities in the school, too. The dental services are free to uninsured children. For those with coverage, the nonprofit bills the insurance, but if any of the dental services aren’t covered by the company, Gracious Smiles doesn’t bill the parents. They pick up those costs with the help of fundraising and grants.

“Everything is given to each child equally there’s no changing what type of care based on what they can afford. And we love it. It’s a way to get quality care to the community,” Henderson said.

Henderson’s team visits the school once a week. With parental consent, the kids get a cleaning and exam every six months, says the dentist, so long as they don’t need other care like fillings. The nonprofit focuses its efforts in the city of Camden and around Burlington County. They’re in the process of raising funds to transform their van into a mobile dental clinic to broaden their reach. Lucas’s mom is grateful her son’s getting the free screening during the school day.

“It’s great thing because it saves time for me, time for me to take from work, from having to spend the whole day in the clinic or doctor’s office,” said mother Beatriz Cepada.

Henderson, a U.S. Air Force veteran, says many people don’t realize the importance of healthy baby teeth.

“If the baby teeth are lost early it’s very difficult for the permanent teeth to know where they are supposed to erupt, so therefore you have orthodontic problems because of it. The cost of orthodontics can run anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000.

Gracious Smiles established their in-school dental office last year. Before that, they started educating students in the classroom about the importance of brushing their teeth, flossing, tooth sealants and nutritional food choices. It’s something the dentist plans to continue throughout the upcoming school year.

“Because no matter what we do clinically, if we don’t educate the child and educate the families, then it’s to no avail,” Henderson said.

Cynthia says she really enjoyed her visit with the dentist. She even got a new toothbrush, giving her another reason to smile.