As a former principal in Prince George's County schools more than 40 years ago, I can still vividly remember when a student arrived for classes in such tremendous pain from an infected tooth she was unable to sit in the classroom, much less participate in learning. Upon being sent to my office, I learned that this child — like many others in our county — had never seen a dentist and was suffering as a result of years of poor dental hygiene.

Situations like this played out repeatedly during my time as an educator, and my colleagues and I did the best we could with the resources available. Because many children came from families without access to a dentist or the funds and transportation to arrange a visit, the county health department was the only resource for dental care, and I learned that the day I took that little girl there to see a dentist for her first time. It was an immediate fix for an immediate problem, but in no way a long-term solution for the issue of poor dental hygiene and lack of access that is pervasive in underserved areas of our county.

This lack of access to basic healthcare services, which remains an issue 30 years later, is one of the reasons my office created the Route 202 Corridor Coalition — a community partnership that helps county residents learn about and obtain services they need.

The coalition, comprised of residents from Seat Pleasant, Glen Arden, District Heights and many other communities, in addition to local and state agencies and community organizations, assists residents with information related to housing, employment, violence prevention, public safety and essential health care services. Although my colleagues and I in the state legislature are working diligently to ensure the needs of families are met, community partnerships like the Route 202 Corridor Coalition are invaluable to ensuring no child or parent goes without the services they need.

Access to dental care is an issue that is extremely important to me, and a critical part of the issues I champion as a legislator and as founder of the coalition. That is why I recently toured the District Heights office of Kool Smiles, a national dental practice committed to providing access and education about oral health in underserved communities. Unlike the vast majority of dentists nationwide, Kool Smiles practices accept patients covered by Medicaid. Not only was I impressed with the Kool Smiles staff and welcoming office environment , it was heartening to learn that Kool Smiles also provides a great deal of uncompensated care to those with no insurance at all. I asked Kool Smiles providers on the spot to join the Route 202 Corridor Coalition.

Children who do not receive dental care miss a significant number of school days, use costly emergency room services more often and encounter worsened job prospects as adults, compared with their peers who have access to care. Federal legislation recently introduced by Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders that would expand dental coverage to millions of Americans should be seriously considered.

Thanks to the work we're doing and these important community partnerships, I hope county schools today are filled with the happy, healthy smiles of children who can access dental care. I would encourage anyone who needs more information about these services to contact my office.

State Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-Dist. 24) of Landover