The statistic is sobering: Preschool-aged Native American children have almost four times more cases of untreated tooth decay than white children – 43 percent compared with 11 percent, according to a 2015 report by the Pew Charitable Trust “The Oral Health Crisis Among Native Americans.”
This past year, through our Smile Strong program, we have provided thousands of children throughout Indian Country with dental kits containing a year’s worth of toothbrushes, a six-month supply of toothpaste and dental floss.
Among the organizations which have distributed Running Strong Smile Strong dental kits are: Spirit Lake Tribal Health in Fort Totten, North Dakota; the Northern Cheyenne Boys & Girls Club in Lame Deer, Montana; the Round Valley Unified School District Native American Studies Program in Covelo, California; the Navajo Hopi Honor Riders in Window Rock, Arizona; Kickapoo Head Start in Powhattan, Kansas; the Interfaith Action Department of Indian Works in St. Paul, Minnesota; and several others.
“We are very grateful to Running Strong for American Indian Youth® for providing necessary items that families can’t always afford. The dental kits provided all the necessary items children and their families need to access healthy dental care at home,” stated Cheryl Tuttle of the Round Valley Indian Tribes.
Cheryl told us of a grandmother raising her four grandchildren who was very grateful for the Smile Strong kits.
“She expressed how she barely has enough money to last the month for food and that it’s hard to make ends meet,” said Cheryl. “She thanked us multiple times for offering the dental kits.”
Cheryl also explained how many Native children will never visit a dentist no matter what.
“Some of our students refuse to go to the dentist, even to the point where their teeth are rotting out,” she said.
A mother in St. Paul told a youth counselor at the Interfaith Action Department of Indian Works that “Being able to receive dental kits for my kids has helped encourage them to brush their teeth more.
“They are excited because now they have their own box with their own toothpaste, floss and even a timer!” she said. “My 4-year-old son is proud to show me how good he brushed his teeth.”
In another instance in a conversation with a staff member and a student, the staff member (who had previously been a dental hygienist and had seen firsthand the effects of limited dental health care in Native communities) heard from a student that he had never been to a dentist.
“He was curious about taking care of his teeth,” reported the staff member, who was concerned about this and wanted to know if there was anything she could do for this student and was thrilled to learn that Running Strong was providing the organization with Smile Strong kits to distribute to the students.
DIW youth education coordinator Virginia Vogel told us that being a part of the Smile Strong dental program allows students and families the opportunity to obtain resources, such as the dental kits, that they would otherwise have to do without, while also providing the chance for education.
“Our staff has been able to use the dental kits as learning opportunities to expand students’ knowledge about their own bodies and gives them the chance to maintain their health,” said Virginia.
“We are grateful for this program and its ability to provide important resources that most other places do not even think about.”