SALT LAKE CITY — On opening day, 36 children and their parents received high-quality dental care at Liberty Community Learning Center.

For some, it was the first time.

“When someone can smile without being embarrassed or feeling pain,” said A.J. Smith, clinic director and associate professor of dentistry at the University of Utah School of Dentistry, “it gives them a whole new outlook on life.”

He said that thanks to numerous community partnerships, including an endowment provided by the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation, students involved in the U. dental program have the opportunity to work in underserved communities throughout Utah, “helping people who need it most.”

“There is a very high need for dental care here,” Smith said.

Dental care is often the last priority for someone trying to make ends meet. But regular checkups and preventing decay are important to avoid disease, and not just in the mouth, said Smith, as other disease can often manifest there first. Oral infections have been found to be indicators of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and low birth weight babies, among other issues.

“The mouth is the gateway to health for the whole body,” Smith said.

Tyler Morris, of Kearns, had a toothache for about two weeks prior to Wednesday, but had a hard time getting in to see a dentist because he was working six days a week.

He was experiencing a lot of pain from what turned out to be a broken and inflamed wisdom tooth, which dental students helped to remove.

“It feels 10 times better already,” Morris, 26, said.

The clinic, located at 1078 S. 300 East, celebrated its official opening on Wednesday. Because it is located at the learning center, access is easier for patients — particularly students and their families, who typically wouldn’t be able to regularly visit a dentist because of cost or transportation.

Andy Noorda, trustee of the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation, cuts the ribbon for the University of Utah School of Dentistry’s new dental clinic at the Liberty Community Learning Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

National research shows that children are three times more likely to miss school because of poor oral health, said James Yapias, director of the Salt Lake Education Foundation. And, because of decreased attendance, school performance wanes and graduation rates suffer.

“It adds up,” he said. “There is a need. And it helps.”

W. Rory Hume, dean of the dental school, said the school is committed to serving Utah’s most vulnerable communities.

“Maintaining good oral health is very important for children, not only for their physical wellbeing but their educational progress as well,” he said, adding that the dental students also learn a lot by helping people who need care.

“We come across a lot of different challenges,” said Christian Brown, a third-year U. dental student who works at the clinic. He said having the chance to work with adult and child patients helps inform his education and experience.

Andy Noorda, trustee of the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation, and Jim Bekker, senior associate dean of the University of Utah School of Dentistry, tour the school’s new dental clinic at the Liberty Community Learning Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

It’s important to make a child’s first dental experience a good one, Brown said, adding that he’s not above being a little silly at times to help kids learn and cultivate good habits early in life.

The clinic aims to be quick and efficient at delivering high-quality dental care.

“Our smile is the first greeting we give the world every day,” said Salt Lake City Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall, who spoke at Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. “To be able to smile with comfort and pride is really something.”

In addition to being a factor of confidence, a person’s teeth, Mendenhall said, can help with intent and conversation, as well as eating comfortably and showing pride in a family photograph. She is happy that people in the Salt Lake City community have additional access to affordable dental care.

That is exactly what the clinic exists to do.

Dental student Timothy Bitner looks at Nandin Onon’s teeth at the University of Utah School of Dentistry’s new dental clinic at the Liberty Community Learning Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“We are here to care for people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to oral care,” Hume said. The school also has access to an endowment for charitable care, should a patient not be able to pay. Dental students have the opportunity to work at eight community clinic locations, with two more coming on board soon.

The newest clinic, at the Liberty Community Learning Center, is open to Liberty Elementary students, families and anyone from the surrounding community. Services are provided to insured and uninsured patients, based on a sliding-fee scale. All initial pediatric visits are $35.

The dental clinic is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. To schedule an appointment, call 801-587-6453.

Attending dentist Laurin Rackham talks to Ashley Jensen about daughter Annalise Jensen’s chipped tooth at the University of Utah School of Dentistry’s new dental clinic at the Liberty Community Learning Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News