Coming Together to Address the Childhood Dental Health Crisis: Lane County Dental Kits

The most common chronic disease affecting children and teens in the United States is tooth decay, despite it being almost 100% preventable. Because oral disease can affect nutrition, appearance, self-esteem and physical wellbeing, children with oral health problems are more likely to be absent from school and to struggle with academic performance. In Oregon, the problem is severe – 52% of children aged six to nine years old have already experienced dental decay. This is partially due to the fact that Oregon has the third lowest rate of water fluoridation in the country, surpassing only New Jersey and Hawaii.

“One of the most pressing issues with children is dental decay,” says Maxine Proskurowski, program manager for health services at the Eugene School District. “It's a silent epidemic that very few practitioners or people are even aware of. The number one reason children miss school is because of dental pain.” Dr. Jeff Jentzsch, dentist and owner of Fresh Dental agrees. “A lot of these dental issues cause kids to miss school, they cause them to fall behind in their academics and fall behind in their lives. Not to mention the pain and suffering caused. A lot of it is avoidable with prevention and some care.”

Fortunately in Lane County, community organizations, local businesses, volunteers and schools are coming together to address childhood dental disease by providing kids with dental care kits and educating them on best practices.

Bethel School District students bearing big grins and their dental kits.

Bethel School District students bearing big grins and their dental kits.

Coming together to donate thousands of dental kits to Lane County kids

In tackling the dental health crisis, prevention is key. And that’s where dental kits come in. “The dental kit initiative was a really simple and really effective way to get involved and do something about children's dental health,” says Mike Coughlin, owner of Burley Design, a local Eugene business that makes recreational transport gear and has spearheaded the dental kit initiative. A few years ago, the company was looking for a way to get its employees engaged in philanthropy and volunteering. When Coughlin first learned about the dental health crisis in Lane County, he immediately recognized the opportunity to achieve the company’s volunteerism goal and give back to the community in a meaningful, yet simple way. To get assistance with additional volunteers, coordination with schools, and general logistics, Burley reached out to United Way of Lane County. “There are a lot of moving parts that exist with the dental health crisis, so when we learned about it and decided to take action, we knew we could cover one sliver of it, which is dental kits,” says Allison Straub, president of Burley. “Where United Way can and does add so much value in a lot of different projects is bringing together various stakeholders and having a dialogue around issues and opportunities.”

In 2015, a collaborative including United Way, Burley, other local businesses and sponsors, and volunteers were able to get 5,000 dental kits into the hands of Lane County kids. Since then, between 16,000 and 30,000 kits have been assembled and distributed annually. As you can imagine, those big numbers come with a big price tag. The kits — which include a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, a two-minute timer and instructions — cost about $2.60. To buy the kits pre-assembled, the cost almost doubles. In years when 30,000 kits have been donated, volunteers have saved about $60,000 in cost by helping with assembly. Burley, Fresh Dental, Oregon Medical Group, Thermo Fisher Scientific and other local businesses and sponsors provide the funds to cover the remaining costs associated with the program.

Dental Kit

Not only does the effort provide a fairly simple solution to a major community problem, it provides local organizations with a meaningful way to give back to the community. “An unplanned benefit of this effort is that it's a really great volunteer opportunity for people because it's not extremely complicated,” says Coughlin. In addition to providing financial support, companies have organized internal “work parties” to assist in assembly efforts, similar to United Way’s annual Day of Caring projects. “It was really eye-opening for so many volunteers in terms of overall awareness of the dental health crisis that we have with kids in our community,” says Straub. “Hopefully, those people who volunteered told their family and friends about it and there's a neat grassroots awareness campaign that is stemming from it.”

“You always feel great and feel connected when you get involved in community service,” Jentzsch agrees. “The more people we can get connected to this cause, the more traction it will gain, until we can start to see some impact.”

A grassroots effort to reinforce healthy dental care habits

Thanks to involvement from a growing number of community partners, volunteers and educators, the effort has become so much more than giving out the kits. “You can give kids a dental kit, but then you really need to develop, and establish, and reinforce the good brushing behavior,” says Straub. “We saw several teachers develop entire lesson plans around it. It was really great to see the teachers grab onto the opportunity and run with it from an education perspective, and hopefully that just helps develop stronger habits for the kids at home.”

For some kids, the toothbrush in their dental kit was their very first. Not only does the program provide kids with the necessary tools and training to follow dental best practices, it empowers them to take control of their own health. “It's an excellent program and I really value it. It indicates to children that somebody in the community cares about them and that it's really important to brush their teeth,” says Proskurowski.

Each year, community involvement in the dental kit program grows and there are plenty of ways that businesses and volunteers can get involved.

Want to get involved?

Register to help assemble 2019 dental kits! Choose from five different volunteer sessions happening throughout MLK Week, January 21-25.

Learn more about other volunteer opportunities with United Way of Lane County.

Volunteers assembling Dental Kits.

Volunteers assembling Dental Kits.

HealthChristie Costello