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From a volunteer’s perspective, a certain level of cool has officially been achieved when a second grader and his walking partner compare you to an Avenger while you skip along with a walkie-talkie in one hand on the way to the Dental Van. Thanks to partnerships between the School District of Manatee County and Manatee County Rural Health services, elementary school students are receiving vital oral health care – many for the first time. “I’ve never seen a dentist,” an eager third-grade boy exclaimed to me as we bounced from his classroom to the van. “And I have some REAL [adult] teeth already!”

Unfortunately first-time visits are much too common among our low-income families as caretakers struggle to obtain basic oral health care for children. United Way of Manatee volunteers have been working with Title 1 School Graduation Enhancement Technicians (GETs) to transport children from their classrooms to the Dental Van where students receive dental sealants and general preventative care, including flossing. Students also receive a short lesson from the dentist on hygiene and a packet to take home including their very own toothbrush, toothpaste, dental mirror, and a sticker (for good measure.)

The Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading recognizes oral health care as a focus to create healthy readers. While oral health problems are the single most common chronic disease of early childhood, only 40% of low-income families are able to schedule yearly dentist appointments. Tooth decay causes children pain, loss of sleep, reduced concentration and attention span, and absence from school or preschool. Children from low-income families and children of color are most vulnerable and are at much higher risk of missing school. Additionally, oral health problems may lead children to limit their food intake and variety, leading to decreased consumption of healthy foods, which in turn affects children’s energy, attention and capacities for learning (Satcher 2003, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading). UWMC has participated in two Dental Van Days so far with another planned this week.

Some students are thrilled to take a “field trip” to the van. “It’s my first time!” I heard over and over from children aged preschool to third grade. Only one child said he had been to the dentist before, following his first-timer walking-partner’s claim with “It is my NUMBER TWO time!” Not all students were thrilled to see the dentist though, some even bursting into tears when we entered the van. In those cases, the students had three layers of comfort: their GET to hand them coloring supplies, the United Way volunteer to read with them, and the dentists themselves who took the time to talk with and show our children the process. “Would you like to help me? Come see what it’s all about,” one dentist kindly told a crying child.

United Way predicted this concern and offered Manatee Schools a solution: reading. Reading is a powerful tool both in education and mitigating stressful situations. United Way provided books and volunteers to read to our children while they waited. “One girl was wailing when she came in, but quickly calmed down when we started reading,” a United Way volunteer told me. I had a scared child whose walking partner and classmate was also eager to help make her feel better. We read a book about Clifford and in one part Clifford got his teeth cleaned. “Just like we are about to do,” I said. “Right!” the young friend explained. “Except dogs don’t have hands so Clifford probably got fur in his teeth.” The scared girl started laughing, and we finished the story just in time for her turn to see the dentist. She bounded off the chair smiling and reached out for the dentist’s hand, suddenly excited for this new adventure.

When walking back to the classrooms, I asked each child if they were nervous and was thrilled to hear how the setting itself (being at school) contributed to easing our children’s concerns. “I was scared, but I had you” the children said or “I had Ms. Ellen.”

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Gifts from the Dental Van went a long way to assuage any remaining concerns about the visit. One child explained that he could now see his “two big [adult] wiggly wiggly teeths” with the help of the new little mirror while another shouted repeatedly that the dentist gave her princess sparkly medicine for her teeth. “Mine is Ninja!” the boy squealed, not to be outdone. Children ran outside to show me all their “cool stuff” from the dentists who clearly showed their compassion for our children throughout the day. One kindergartner was pretty adamant that I should go see the Dental Van dentists because they were REALLY good at their jobs.

An A+ experience for our children and volunteers. Many thanks to the partnership of School District of Manatee County, Manatee County Rural Health, the United Way and Graduation Enhancement Technicians who help us fight for the education, health, and financial stability of our children.

If you would like to volunteer to be a reader and walker for the Dental Van visits, please email Cassandra Decker at cassandra@uwmanatee.org.

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