Ready Set Smile increases healthy smiles among low-income students in Minneapolis

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Three facts in a U.S. surgeon general report should be enough to accentuate the profound impact that dental problems have on poor children in the United States:

  • Low-income children lose about 51 million school hours each year to dental-related illness.
  • About 37 percent of low-income children have one or more untreated decayed teeth, compared with 17.3 percent of their more affluent counterparts.
  • Because of dental problems, low-income children have 12 times more restricted-activity days than higher-income children do.

Mindful of these statistics, one nonprofit organization — Ready Set Smile (RSS) — is working to improve the oral health of low-income school children in Minneapolis.

The two-year-old RSS provides students whose parents consent to oral care with free fluoride treatment, cavity filling, sealant placement and one-on-one hygiene instruction.“Dental decay is the top issue for kids in the state of Minnesota, and it’s absolutely preventable,” said Lisa Lindstrom, executive director of Ready Set Smile. “We’re working with families who are very poor, who are struggling with homelessness, who are working multiple jobs just to meet the minimum need.”

Dental treatments for the students depend on their history of decay. Students whose decay rates are low are treated two times every school year. Those with higher decay are treated up to four times each school year.

RSS knows where dental care is needed most: Jefferson Community School, Sojourner Truth Academy and Loring Community School — some of Minneapolis’ most impoverished schools.

For example, 95 percent of Jefferson Community School students receive the free or reduced-price lunch program, many are homeless and others are newly arrived immigrants from Africa and Latin America.

At Sojourner Truth Academy (STA), more than 90 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch. Seventy-seven percent of the school’s student population is African-American, 22 percent is Hispanic and 20 percent are English-learners.

Like Jefferson and STA, the majority of students at Loring Community School qualify for free or reduced lunch program.

Many children in these student populations do not normally get dental checks, Lindstrom said. “Most of the parents of these kids don’t have adequate transportation or insurance, or they don’t understand whether the insurance they have actually covers dental services,” she added.

Empowering students

RSS staff members do not limit their service to screening and cleaning student mouths. They also go into classrooms to educate students about the importance of oral health and methods to prevent dental diseases.

Educators from RSS teach in classrooms four times a year and give out free toothbrushes, Lindstrom said.

She added: “When you get kids who are living in homeless shelters, keeping a toothbrush is a pretty hard thing to do — and keeping a toothbrush clean is even more difficult.”

RSS’ oral health education curriculum is based on science, nutrition and safety, Lindstrom said. She hopes that the hands-on learning will empower students, give them fun activities and a reason to smile with confidence.

RSS plans to expand its services to reach other schools throughout the state with needy student populations. “We would like to see the type of service that we provide provided to every school in the state of Minnesota,” Lindstrom said.

She added: “We’re very passionate about the services that we provide because we know that decay is preventable and we know that the model that we have works.”

Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at ihirsi@minnpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.

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