Dental Care on Wheels

Dental Care on Wheels

Mobile Care Chicago’s Dental Van meets young patients where they are — at school 


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Fact checked by Derick Wilder


Mobile Care Chicago is celebrating a milestone this summer: the 10-year anniversary of the Dental Van program.

To celebrate, Mobile Care Chicago launched a campaign to expand dental care access, with a goal of adding another dental van to serve Lake County’s Waukegan and North Chicago.

Since 1998, Mobile Care Chicago has brought clinical care directly to schools and childcare centers, serving children free of charge. The organization started with a mobile allergy and asthma clinic and in 2014 launched its first dental van.

Children inside of the Mobile Care dental van
Children hold their new toothbrushes inside the Mobile Care Chicago’s Dental Van, outside of Pathways To Learning Child Care Center in Chicago

“The need we’re seeing in Waukegan and North Chicago is as urgent as we see in Chicago’s south suburbs, which are considered the worst oral health desert in Illinois,” says Matt Siemer, Mobile Care Chicago’s executive director.

The demand for accessible dental services in Lake County is particularly pressing in Waukegan, according to Mobile Care Chicago. 

“Children who are living in mouth pain are, unfairly, held to the same standards as everyone else: They’re scored on the same tests, graded on the same subjects,” Siemer says. “If no one steps in to fix an issue of chronic pain, they end up falling behind and, potentially, written off.”

Mobile Care Dental Van photos of kids receiving treatment
1. Far right, Brenda Wells, family support associate for the Head Start program, escorts young patients back to the school building; 2. Brenda Wells escorts children back to school; 3. Young patients play with their new toothbrushes after receiving dental treatment at Mobile Care Chicago’s Dental Van; 4. Young patients undergo routine dental exams in Mobile Care Chicago’s Dental Van

The dental van visits each school twice a year, serving as a dental destination for children until age 18. 

“Cleaning a child’s teeth one time isn’t what we’re interested in,” Siemer says. “What we do is continuous follow-up, as well as restorations, so that there aren’t issues later in life. The average patient stays with us for seven years currently. Over that time, we can see how their health develops and catch challenges before they become urgent issues,” he adds.

On Jan. 11, the dental van parked outside of Pathways To Learning Child Care Center at 6535 S. Kedzie Ave. in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. Larissa Navarro, DDS, Mobile Care Chicago’s dental director, presided over care that Thursday morning. 

Children received brightly colored toothbrushes as takeaways and reminders for good dental hygiene.

The dental van can accommodate up to about 50 children in a site visit. Cavities are the most common dental issue among children, Navarro says.

“Most kids will have a cavity in their lifetime,” she says. Yet, she adds, “There is such a gap with dentistry. I think a lot of people go to the pediatrician first. They tend to forget about the teeth.”.

The first dental visit should be when the first tooth erupts — typically around six months or by the first birthday, according to the American Dental Association. “That surprises a lot of parents,” Navarro says. “You want to start those early oral health care habits early on.”

Mobile Care Chicago is educating children and families about those habits across the Chicago area.

Photo at top: Children hold their new toothbrushes inside the Mobile Care Chicago’s Dental Van. The van visited Pathways To Learning Child Care Center (6535 S. Kedzie Ave.) in Chicago on Jan. 11, 2024.
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2024 print issue.