Bringing Brighter Smiles to Santa Barbara County Kids

In honor of the National Children’s Dental Health Month, Direct Relief International sponsored its 14th annual round of free dental clinics in Santa Barbara County, California. Four clinics were held in high-need communities between February and April, helping connect 18 county dentists with 105 children who lack the resources to receive needed dental services.

Created in 1993 to address the needs of uninsured county children, the Healthy Smiles Dental Program, directed since its origin by Direct Relief program officer Martha Angeles, collaborates with more than 30 other community groups to screen, identify, treat, and educate these children to ensure that their current dental problems do not develop into more complex health conditions.

Though all dental disease is preventable, two of the main obstacles to children’s dental health are parents’ lack of access to oral health information and their inability to pay for preventative dental health services for their children. Healthy Smiles provides preventative services such as bilingual oral health education, cleanings and restorative care for children with severe need, and dental hygiene kits for families. The kits include toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss.

The process begins as children from selected elementary schools in the County are screened to determine the state of their oral health and whether or not they have access to dental insurance through a parent’s employer or through Denti-Cal. If a child is not covered by any type of insurance, he or she may be eligible for complimentary treatment through the program.

The clinics have been an invaluable resource to families without dental insurance in Isla Vista, a small, largely immigrant-inhabited community bordering the University of California – Santa Barbara (UCSB) in Goleta. This year’s Isla Vista clinic, hosted at UCSB, brought together 16 children and six local dentists, as well as many dental hygienists and other community volunteers in an effort to tackle the issue of children’s dental health problems.

Angelita Echeveste, the Family Resource Center Coordinator at Isla Vista Youth Projects, serves as a link between Direct Relief and the children from Isla Vista Elementary School who are selected for treatment. She stressed that although parents are generally very concerned with their children’s health, they find it difficult to take time off of work either because they do not want to ask for a day off for fear of losing their jobs or because they feel they cannot afford to lose the income of a full workday.

After the first contact is made, however, Echeveste does whatever she can to make it possible for the parents to bring their children to the clinic. She tells them that “If they can’t come into my office, then I’ll go to their house and we’ll fill out the application.” Her flexibility and persistence resulted in the successful recruitment of 20 kids for the Isla Vista dental clinic.

As she was excitedly waiting for treatment, Mirna, a kindergartener at Isla Vista Elementary School, shared what she had learned from the “tooth fairy” at school. She explained that, “your teeth can get germs in them,” and that she and her classmates have toothbrushes in their classroom in case they did not brush their teeth at home. Through the new healthy diet education portion of the program, Mirna learned the importance of calcium for her teeth and bones and proudly claimed, “I always drink milk. I’m a cow.”

After her daughter was called in by the dentist, Mirna’s mother Patty commented that she “sees the program as a good opportunity.” When asked whether it was difficult for her to make time to come to the clinic, Patty replied that it was not an issue for her because she has a flexible schedule. She stays home to take care of her children in addition to being on-call for small domestic jobs in the area while her husband works in the fields.

Upon receiving fillings for her cavities, Mirna walked back into the waiting room, but a big frown had replaced her anticipatory smile. Silvia Erickson, the Dental Hygienist who worked on Mirna, shook her head and laughing slightly said that her patient was very sad when she found out that not even her cuteness could get her out of the uncomfortable treatment. She emphasized that “with a good diet and good hygiene we can avoid all these problems and it [prevention] is a cheaper, much less painful way.”

Barbara Sherman, another dental hygienist, stressed the importance of prevention as she presented the new bilingual health education portion of Healthy Smiles at the Isla Vista dental clinic with Martha Angeles and distributed a Spanish-language information sheet covering healthy snacks. She believes that “health education should start when women are pregnant” because of the importance of baby teeth. Sherman lists the development of smiling, speech, and holding space for permanent teeth as some of the reasons mothers should pay attention to baby teeth.

Since most of the cases at the clinics are serious and treatments are needed on both sides of the mouth, one day is not enough to put the kids back on track. While Angeles is very satisfied with the continued success of Healthy Smiles and the enthusiastic volunteers who make the event possible, Angeles hopes that next year she can encourage more families to attend and that she will be able to provide additional health education covering a healthy diet.

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