A gray sky hangs over Joe Hamilton Elementary School, the grounds shrouded in mist. All is quiet, save for the hum of a generator coming from the rear parking lot.
The door to the Del Norte Dental Van shuts out the drizzle and the curious. Instruments buzz faintly over the generator's roar. Suddenly the door opens and a little girl skips down the stairs and heads back to class.
"The child you just saw took a little bit longer. She was scared," said Dr. Robert Chiang, who performs exams, x-rays and teaches the county's schoolchildren about oral health. "A lot of the time, the kids themselves haven't been to a dentist, but we do what we can."
Two avocado green dental chairs sit at either end of the van, complete with overhead lights and instrument trays. Brightly colored posters decorate the walls. A strategically placed video game distracts even the most nervous patient, and when the procedure is done the student walks away with a toy airplane, a mechanical pencil or a slap bracelet.
Sometimes the patient will walk away with a Beanie Baby, said Lynda Bourne, one of Chiang's assistants.
"We save those for difficult cases," she said.
For two years Chiang, Bourne and his other assistant Courtney Axelson have visited Del Norte County's schools to provide dental care. Chiang estimated he examines 15andndash;20 sets of teeth a day, pulling kids out of class for treatment and sending them back when they're done.
But the program, which is operated by Open Door Community Health Centers, has suffered a minor setback. Over the winter break, unidentified thieves cut through bolt and chain and made off with the van's main generator. It was parked outside Open Door's community health center at Washington Boulevard and Northcrest Drive.
"We're on a backup generator right now," Chiang said. "It doesn't supply as much power. It's not as convenient."
Open Door has had a mobile dental van program for quite a few years, but up until 2011 one van would visit schools in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, said program coordinator Barbara Davis. The van would make the rounds in Humboldt and was only able to make the trek to Del Norte every two to three years or so, she said.
"Right now we kind of rotate depending on the need," Davis said, adding that she'll send letters to each school, asking the principals if they would be interested in hosting the dental van. "For some of the kids, it's the first time they've ever been to the dentist. We have some kids where every tooth in their head needs a filling, but we see all kids regardless."
They accept patients with Medi-Cal, private insurance and those on the California Healthy Families program, Davis said. But they also see students regardless of their ability to pay, she said.
"If parents sign them up, we'll see them," Davis said. "It's more convenient. They don't have to miss a day of school. The dental van has proven successful, too, because kids don't have the anxiety of sitting in a waiting room."
Open Door Community Health Centers was able to start a dental van program specifically for Del Norte County with a $300,000 California Endowment grant through the Building Healthy Communities Initiative. The van cost about $330,000. Open Door provides the equipment and staff.
For most of her students, visiting the dentist at school is not nearly as scary as sitting in a waiting room, said Joe Hamilton Elementary Principal Denise Harnden. About 75 students have had their teeth examined since the van has been at Joe Hamilton, she said.
"Kids are thrilled to go to see the dentist," Harnden said. "They treat them so nicely. They invite parents in when they're going to do a big procedure. The kids can't wait to go."
The van has been at Joe Hamilton since January, Chiang said. It will be at the Crescent City school for another two weeks before heading north to Smith River.
For more information about the dental van program, visit www.opendoorhealth.com.
Reach Jessica Cejnar at firstname.lastname@example.org.