Shavon Carter arrived at the dentist's office Thursday morning with her five young sons and an orange bucket full of Halloween candy.
Before their appointments, the East Baltimore family traded their trick-or-treat bounty for a toy in a swap program that combines preventive dentistry with Operation Troop Treats — care packages for members of the military serving overseas.
"This is teaching them how to give," Carter said of her children. "They might not be so willing to part with their candy, but that doesn't matter. They have too much candy anyway. This is a great idea, and it's making us all feel good."
The candy, along with dental hygiene products, will be shipped overseas to troops or to veterans groups at home through Operation Gratitude, which annually fills about 100,000 packages with snacks, DVDs, CDs and books for soldiers in the field, wounded military personnel and veterans homes.
Kool Smiles, a dental practice that maintains five offices in the city and more than 100 across the country, has organized the toy trades that simultaneously fight tooth decay and support U.S. troops. Kool Smiles has offered to pay the shipping costs, too.
"We hope to give troops a piece of home sweet home and items that won't let them forget their dental health," said Dr. Priya Grewal, Kool Smiles' regional dental director. "And maybe we can cut down on children's repercussions from overindulgence with candy."
Master Sgt. David L. Henderson, who has served three tours in Iraq, was at Kool Smiles on North Broadway to personally thank the young donors. Dressed in his military fatigues, he told children he would take all the candy they offered and put it to good use.
"Packages from home are the biggest morale-booster," said Henderson, who is based at Fort Meade. "Packages from complete strangers are truly heartfelt. They show people really care and we are not forgotten."
He also thanked the dentists for the toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss that will accompany the candy. Then he eased their concerns. "Don't worry," he said. "We have dentists over there, too."
The program is another way to stress oral health, especially with the youngest patients, said Grewal. An overabundance of Halloween treats can be rough on children's teeth, she said.
"Excess sugar intake creates a higher risk for cavities," she said.
Henderson put together a display in the lobby of the dental office. Right next to the box of toys he placed Army T-shirts, boots, some medals and pins, a camouflage cap and an aviator helmet that he wore on duty aboard a helicopter during combat missions. Emanuel Parker, 12, donated 25 pieces of candy, chose a toy for his 2-year-old niece and asked if he could try the helmet on.
He decided it was a lot heavier than the helmet he wore when he went trick-or-treating in lacrosse gear Wednesday.
"I don't mind giving candy away for this," he said.
Brandon Carter, 5, tried on the cap and stood at attention. He shook Henderson's hand and showed the soldier the toy truck he had chosen from the cache.
"We are sending our candy to the soldiers to say thank you," Brandon said.
Gena McCray of East Baltimore did not learn about Operation Troop Treats until she came to the office with her 2-year-old daughter Andreya. She promised to return with some of the toddler's candy.
"She has a lot, and I know she is willing to part with it," McCray said.
The Carter kids left with an empty bucket, toys and smiles.
The candy swap runs through office hours Saturday at all Kool Smiles locations. Any child overloaded with Halloween sweets is invited to take advantage of the offer.