Teen has a lot to smile about
A dental clinic staffed by volunteers at the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater changed her look and her outlook.
By JOSE CARDENAS, Times Staff Writer
Published December 26, 2007
CLEARWATER - As a child and teenager, Shefe Cotton covered her mouth when she smiled.
Poor dental hygiene and two liters of soda a day had left her with at least three dark-green and black rotted teeth. Kids called her names such as "gutter mouth."
But a handful of local dentists thought they could still save her teeth. They wanted to give a 15-year-old a brighter outlook.
"I thought it would be a life-changing experience for her," said Dr. Patrick Lepeak, a retired dentist from Belleair.
So over the past year, the dentists donated $25,000 worth of dental work to Shefe, seeing her at the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater where they volunteer, and at their private offices.
With the last work finished earlier this month, Shefe now has a perfect white smile, a sort of Christmas present.
"I'm more energetic," said Shefe, a tall girl who lives in Clearwater and attends Dunedin High School, "more confident about myself, just happy."
Each year, the dental clinic at HEP provides about 1,800 dental care procedures on about 300 people, according to the staff. The $250,000 in donated labor by about 20 dentists illustrates the need for such care among the poor.
HEP's dental clinic was started in 1994 by William Johnston, a retired dentist who volunteered at HEP answering the phone.
"He kept saying, 'We need to start a dental clinic,'" said HEP president Barbara Green. "I said, 'Doc, you're the dentist.'"
The clinic started with $2,500 from HEP and a $5,000 X-ray machine Johnston got as a donation. It's now one of the services most used at the shelter.
Working families and the uninsured also struggle to obtain expensive dental care.
But the HEP clinic is one of at least two local programs involving area dentists trying to provide cheap or free care.
Last month, a group of dentists launched Gulf Coast Dental Outreach.
The evolving network of dentists wants to provide cheap care on Fridays to needy adults in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
For Shefe, the tooth decay started around fifth grade at Sandy Lane Elementary School.
It hurt Rebecca Cotton to see kids who had been her daughter's friends begin to tease her.
Only one friend, Monique General, stuck up for Shefe.
"This one girl always stuck with her," said Cotton, 37, a nurse. "When kids were picking on her, she would say, 'That's not right.'"
Her insurance covered basic dental care, Cotton said. She could not come up with hundreds of dollars upfront that dentists wanted for more expensive work.
"You've got to do something," Shefe's aunt, Johnetta Dennis, told Cotton. "She's such a pretty girl."
In January, Cotton brought Shefe to HEP which was helping establish eligibility for children who wanted to participate in "Give Kids a Smile."
It's an event organized by chapters of the American Dental Association nationally. Once a year, dentists give needy children in their area free dental services.
When Shefe came to sign up, she "sat with her hand over her mouth and wouldn't smile," said Susan Vaughn, who manages the dental clinic at HEP.
HEP signed her up for the Give Kids a Smile event held at Clearwater Dental Associates.
But the work Shefe needed was more than what could be done in one day. HEP staff organized a long-term effort involving its volunteer dentists.
The work started in March.
Dr. Raed Kasem did the root canals.
Extractions were courtesy of Dr. Reinaldo Claudio.
Braces were handled by Dr. Marshall Spoto.
Crowns were done by Michael Senn and Dr. Arthur Burt.
The restorative work was done by Lepeak.
As her appearance has improved through the year, so have her grades, Shefe said.
Instead of C's, D's and F's, she said she now has three A's and three B's.
She could not play basketball this fall because of her old bad grades, said Shefe, who is just shy of 6 feet tall. Her new grades will make her eligible next fall.
"More people come around me or talk to me," including boys, said Shefe. "I guess people feel more comfortable around me."
She added: "I'm still the same person. If you can't accept me for what I was then, it's going to be hard for me to accept you now."
Jose Cardenas can be reached at email@example.com or 727 445-4224.
[Last modified December 25, 2007, 20:45:54]
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