PITTSBURG, Kan. —
When Galena school custodians began complaining about foam in the restroom sinks a few years ago, Krista Postai knew a new dental program was making progress.
“It was from kids brushing their teeth after lunch; that’s how I knew it was working,” Postai said Thursday at Pittsburg’s Family Resource Center.
Postai, director of the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas, was speaking to a group of dental professionals, city leaders and school personnel from the 11 counties served by the CHC, and representatives from state and national dental health organizations.
It was a celebratory luncheon for the achievements of CHC’s outreach dental program, which began in 2004 with one chair and one dentist in a closet-like room at Wesley House. After expanding to Galena, it now serves thousands of children in 31 school districts.
But it’s difficult to choose, said Gail Kennedy, who directs the dental program, whether the headline news of the day Thursday was the fact that Oral Health of America presented the program with a $25,000 check in recognition of its efforts, or that Arma, Kan., fifth-grader China Fox had a thumbs-up report after her dental screening that morning.
A team of two dental hygienists and a dentist had set up a mobile screening and treatment station in the nurse’s office at Arma Elementary School, including portable dentist chairs, cleaning stations and X-ray equipment with which to serve a portion of the 532 students enrolled.
“I was really scared,” said Fox as she settled into the chair so Pam Younger, hygienist, could conduct a cleaning and check for cavities.
“But they brought me in here, and I got see other kids doing it, so I knew I would be all right. Also I go to school here, so it felt comfortable.”
She’s representative of thousands of students who either are medically underserved, uninsured, have parents who lack transportation or the ability to get them to a larger town for treatment, or are resistant to dental treatment.
Dental screenings in schools were mandated by state statute as early as 1915, according to Kennedy. But the effort “faded away” in recent decades, particularly in rural areas like Galena and Arma where there are no local dentists in practice who can contribute time and equipment.
Today, tooth decay is the most widespread childhood disease in America, affecting 50 percent of first-graders and 80 percent of 17-year-olds, and resulting in the loss of 51 million school hours each year.
Galena Superintendent Brian Smith said those children cannot learn if they are hurting. He has seen test scores go down, behavior issues go up — even the football team was negatively affected when players suffered from mouth pain.
The district, one of the poorest in the state, had lost its last dentist in town about 2007, couldn’t comply with the state mandate for screenings, and “didn’t know what to do,” Smith said.
‘BLESSING AND NO-BRAINER’
When Kennedy approached him with an idea to allow the CHC to conduct outreach screenings in the school, Smith called it “a blessing and a no-brainer.”
Postai, meanwhile, could see the need increasing in other Southeast Kansas districts, where there is an above-average percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and situational poverty is on the rise.
She directed staff to apply online through Oral Health of America for products to support the program — toothbrushes, floss and the like — in order to expand.
The CHC continued to apply each year, and OHA continued to send supplies. Other districts joined the program, inviting into their buildings teams of dental hygienists and dentists from throughout Southeast Kansas. The list now includes Baxter Springs, Riverton, Columbus, Cherokee, Pittsburg, Fort Scott and Arma school districts, among others. It also includes services beyond screenings, like sealants to protect teeth and restorative procedures like fillings and tooth extractions to prevent further decay.
Kennedy said the program also places an emphasis on education and awareness in an attempt to break the cycle of poor oral health habits.
“We’re talking to them about diet and nutrition, how to care for their mouths, and to stop the pop,” she said. “We asked one girl we saw what she normally drinks. She said she loved milk, but her mom doesn’t like it and buys pop instead. So we taught the young girl, and then she taught her brothers, that she can drink water instead.”
On a follow-up visit, “her mouth was as clean as a whistle, and she told us she and her brothers drink water at meals now, so we’re breaking the chain,” Kennedy said.
Today, Smith said he would be shocked “if a child in the Galena School District had so much as a cavity.”
“We won the war — we had a war going on, and we were losing,” he said. “Now our test scores are up, and our football team has gotten a lot better.”
Officials at OHA, meanwhile, were shocked themselves: They kept getting requests from a health center in Southeast Kansas that appeared to grow larger each year in both scope and service. To date, some 5,000 children have been screened and, if necessary, received follow-up care.
OHA spokeswoman Melissa Hoebbel said a six-month selection procedure led to the grant award for the CHC, one of four in the nation to receive it. With it comes a partnership with the Smiles Across America program and the ability to expand screening efforts in several more schools.
“To see this caliber of program is very unique,” she said. “They serve huge numbers and are outstanding in service. We’re blown away. This is a true jewel — very progressive, very innovative, particularly in a rural area.”
Family Resource Center Director Monica Murnan, one of the early collaborators of the effort, announced Thursday that the money will provide for services to double the number of children they’ve served to date — an anticipated 10,000 students in the coming year.
Beth Truitt, the group’s president and CEO, was on hand Thursday to present a ceremonial check for the grant award and to congratulate those involved for what she called a model program.
“You are truly leading the way,” Truitt said. “We see it, and we’re going to be talking about it on a national basis.”
Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas is a not-for-profit “safety net” primary health care organization designated as a federally qualified health center. It was designed to improve access to primary and preventative health care and create medical homes for those faced with financial, geographic, language, cultural and other barriers to their health care. The three other health centers to receive grant awards are in Arizona, Massachusetts and Florida.