Dr. Tessa Emmons said she volunteers for Smile Kentucky! because “anytime you can promote good dental health and you can help a child, it’s a win-win.”
She added that the program, which provides both dental education and free screenings to third- through sixth-grade students, helps take the fear out of visiting the dentist, and it helps children learn healthy habits that can reduce dental problems for the rest of their lives.
Established in 2002, Smile Kentucky! has provided education to more than 158,000 children in Louisville and the surrounding area. Overall, about 43,000 children have received a free dental screening, and more than 3,500 have received free treatment — valued at $1.3 million.
How It Works
Smile Kentucky! coordinates its efforts with school districts to determine which schools will participate in the program each year.
In the classroom, lessons provided by Louisville Water Company teach the students how to properly brush and floss. The education component of the program also encourages the youngsters to choose healthy snacks and drinks (like tap water), and it emphasizes the importance of visiting a dentist regularly to maintain a healthy mouth.
For the screenings, students board the Colgate Bright Smiles Bright Futures dental van. It’s a kid-friendly environment with videos both inside and outside the vehicle, but it also provides well equipped exam areas for the dentists and hygienists who volunteer their time. The Colgate Bright Smiles Bright Futures team helps guide the students through the screening process.
Dr. Laurie Ford, who recently volunteered to screen students at schools in Bullitt County, says the program is especially beneficial for children whose parents do not qualify for government programs that serve low-income families but who still struggle to afford dental care.
“Smile Kentucky! helps fill the gap,” Dr. Ford said.
Both Dr. Ford and Dr. Emmons recently volunteered at Shepherdsville Elementary School, where they screened more than 100 students in a few hours.
A National Model
Smile Kentucky! is considered a national model for community partnerships. It was created in 2002 from an existing partnership between Louisville Water Company, Louisville Dental Society and the University of Louisville School of Dentistry. Funding for the program comes from its steering committee, as well as sponsors and grants. In all, more than 600 volunteers make the program work — from employees, dental students, local school systems, and dental supply companies.
According to Christy Ray, Louisville Water Public Relations Specialist, Smile Kentucky! is now a recognized leader in helping underserved children fight tooth decay, which the U.S. Surgeon General has called the number one common, chronic childhood disease.
Ray notes that although the dentists who volunteer for the program have not seen a rise in the number of students who have dental problems, they do report seeing a rise in the severity of a problem when they find one.
“A lot of times, the dentists don’t find just one cavity,” Ray said. “They find five cavities—or ten cavities.” The student’s parents receive a report on the screening results, and Smile Kentucky! offers free treatment from local providers to children who do not have dental care coverage or who have urgent needs.
“Making sure children know how to care for their teeth and have access to good dental health care—that’s what Smile Kentucky is all about,” Ray said. For more information on the program, visit smilekentucky.com.