On a cloudy day in May, third-graders at Warrenton Grade School eagerly brushed the teeth on big puppets, flossed markings off building blocks, painted fluoride on pictures of teeth, wiped “sugar bugs” off a board representing teeth, and watched as magnets representing sticky, sweet foods stuck to teeth, while healthier foods did not.
Part of Providence Healthy Smiles, the five-year program is funded by the Oregon Community Foundation and Providence Seaside Hospital to educate schoolchildren and their parents about the importance of dental care and access to it.
Dental decay is the most common childhood chronic disease, according to the Oregon Health Authority, and 58 percent of third-graders have tooth decay.
“If left untreated, dental disease can be devastating to children’s health, educational success, productivity, self-image and future,” writes Alana Kujala, manager of community partnerships and volunteer services at Providence Seaside Hospital.
Mackenna Taylor, program coordinator, works with school nurses and staff to bring resources to Clatsop County schools. Different ages are targeted each year.
“Nothing makes your day better than spending time with kids,” Taylor says. “Kids are eager to learn and with hands-on activities, they catch on fast.”
Students sit on the floor as Taylor asks how often they should floss and brush their teeth, what foods and drinks contain the most sugar, etc.
In orderly groups, the students visit each of the five stations hosted by volunteers. Parents and Tongue Point Job Corps students in the dental hygiene program manned the tables at Warrenton.
“I love that the schools support this program,” says Ruth Evans, one of the student volunteers. Bethany Burd, another Job Corps volunteer, says she likes volunteering with kids because they have such an interesting way of looking at things.
“This is a fantastic opportunity to improve this community,” says Paul Fredericksen, a parent volunteer. He is a medic in Tillamook who loves his schedule, which allows him to spend a maximum amount of time volunteering at school.
Healthy Smiles gets kids off to a good start, and another Providence program helps adults get free dental care. Most adults have some oral disease. About 1 in 5 adults have lost six or more teeth, according to the OHA.
Parked outside Providence Seaside Hospital is a mobile dental van. Hygienists and dental assistants screen patients for needs and can place sealants on teeth. About once a month, dentists volunteer to offer free fillings and extractions for people who don’t have dental insurance. Taylor assists parents with options for oral health care and how to navigate the system. At the hospital, she can take people to Clatsop Community Action’s Community referral desk, where Marcello Hernandez can provide connections to all sorts of social services.
Oral health care is one of seven target areas the Oregon Health Improvement Plan identified to improve by the year 2020. The Way to Wellville encourages dental checkups and teeth cleaning as a key to good health.
“When one has pain from a tooth or gum problem, it affects everything,” Taylor says “I like to deal with pleasant little people — they smile and giggle.”