As more parents get laid off or struggle with low-paying jobs in Calgary, their children are paying the price with their teeth.

“With the economy, with the government and with fees, it’s a multi-faceted issue and, you can appreciate in Alberta, we have a huge problem with people falling through the cracks,” said Denise Kokaram, program lead for the Alex Dental Health Bus, which provides mobile services to city schools in high-needs areas.

The number of kids being seen through the Alex’s preventative school program has doubled since it began in 2013. In the first year, 798 children were seen. That jumped to 1,607 in 2016. The amount of children with decay has also shot up from 225 in 2013 to 745 in 2015. The number for 2016 is not yet available.

The numbers are also rising for children seen by the bus team who require more advanced treatment. These families are referred to clinics run by volunteer dentists. In 2013, 65 children had work done. In 2016, that rose to 298.

In total, more than $1.4 million in treatment has been provided to 13,000 children through one of the Alex dental programs and its partners. The dental bus is running at capacity and they are unable to keep up with the demand from the public, schools and agencies, said Kokaram.

“Every day I am fielding an increasing number of calls from people wanting to know how to access care but who are not falling into the criteria for government assistance and are not able to afford to go to the mainstream dentist and they’re in desperate need.”

Ashley Chorney is one of those parents. She’s a stay-at-home mom and her husband is a self-employed seasonal worker. They just can’t afford Blue Cross coverage so her daughter Ava, 7, was referred by the Alex to a free clinic on Friday at Westhills Dental Centre.

“When I got the call I had tears, but they were happy tears. It’s so great that people are willing to help. They are doing something truly amazing.”

While the Alex does a lot of work with the homeless community, Kokaram said the biggest demand for dental care is coming from those who just lost their jobs or have low-income employment without benefits.

“Many of our clients are working poor and disadvantaged families who cannot afford (it). The very poor have access to government assistance but the working poor continually fall through the cracks.”

Another concern is the severity of dental problems these children have when they are first seen.

“We’ve got a 50 per cent decay rate that we’ve identified and we need to be able to do something more than the preventative side of it,” said Kokaram. “The real way to deal with it is to engage the dental community to take some responsibility with what we’re doing.”

That’s occurring through Smiles Dental Clinics where city dentists volunteer their time, office and staff to treat children referred by the Alex. Dr. Greg Cumberford has done 41 such clinics and on Friday, he was joined by fellow dentists Daniel Yu and Belinda Sher in treating 29 children with cleanings and X-rays, fillings, root canals and extractions. One seven-year-old boy needed at least seven fillings.

Cumberford believes the increasing severity of decay is due to a combination of factors: no flouride in our water, a society where the average diet is high in processed foods and refined sugars, and an inability to afford treatment.

“We’re hitting that perfect storm and it’s sad because we’re seeing that reflected in the children. It’s heartbreaking. This should not be happening in Calgary.”