By Sharon Chin

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — His patients say he’s so gentle and mild-mannered that they call him the dental version of TV’s Mr. Rogers. Because of him, thousands of students are getting the dental care they need.

“That’s a good boy,” Dr. Daniel Tanita told the six-year-old who lay perfectly still in the dental chair.

Tanita believes in a simple equation: if you can’t get children to the dentist’s office, bring the office to kids like Alejandro Mora.

“This was my first time,” Mora reported afterward. “It was fun.”

A few steps inside Peres Elementary School in Richmond, Dr. Tanita has set up shop. His free clinic opens several times a month. He and several volunteer dentists serve about 300 kids — half the student body.

“They don’t have access going to the dentist on a regular basis,” Tanita explained. “A lot of them the only time they went was because it was an emergency.”

The school’s clinic took root in 1997, thanks to a Healthy Start grant. Parents in the low income Iron Triangle neighborhood wanted dental care, and invited Dr. Tanita to help.

“I was looking for some opportunities to give back to the community,” he said.

When he first started, the clinic was very small, set up in what used to be a converted janitor’s closet.

Tanita remembered, “We got donated equipment and used chairs, and did checkups and cleaning.”

But students needed more.

“They’d have multiple cavities and problems, but we wouldn’t be able to treat it here,” Tanita said. “They’d be sent out and a lot of times they’d fall through the cracks.”

Last fall, a $500,000 school bond funded a brand new campus dental office. Now, Dr. Tanita’s clinic offers a complete palate of free services – from X-rays to extractions.

“They can’t afford to go to the dentist and get sealants and preventative care,” explained Clinic Manager Deja Townsend. “So he definitely saves people’s teeth.”

Hygienist Ana Mendoza works at Dr. Tanita’s private practice and volunteers at the school site.

“I’ve been a patient since I was little,” she said. “I just remember having treatment and being scared and him being so patient.”

So for providing thousands of kids free and gentle dental care, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Dr. Daniel Tanita.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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