February is National Children’s Dental Health Month sponsored by the American Dental Association. The month-long national health observance brings together thousands of dedicated professionals, healthcare provides and educators to promote the benefits of good oral health to children and many others.
While at Running Strong for American Indian Youth® we are especially concerned about the dental health of Native American children throughout Indian Country.
“Unfortunately,” reported Native News Online on February 15, “preschool-aged Native American children had four times more cases of untreated tooth decay than white children – 43 percent compared with 11 percent, according to a Pew Study.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts study, “The Oral Health Crisis Among Native Americans,” issued in 2015, states that millions of Native Americans suffer from poor oral health – a large percentage of them children – because of a lack of available dentists.
“In 2014, more than 2.4 million Native Americans lived in counties with dental care shortage areas, and half of all Native American children lived in a shortage area,” the study reports.
But there are also other factors at play, including the sad fact is that for many families throughout Indian Country, such as thousands on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, they cannot afford to spend their extremely limited funds on “luxuries” such as toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss.
In fact, according to the Pew study, 97 percent of adults on the Pine Ridge reservation – one of the largest in the country – had untreated decay in 2011 (the most current figure we are aware of), and 68 percent had developed gum disease.
It’s highly unlikely that much has changed in the past decade, and that’s why several years ago we developed and implemented our “Smile Strong” dental health program to provide families with kits containing several child and adult size toothbrushes, a six-month supply of toothpaste and floss, as well as an information card with instructions to brush for at least two minutes twice daily.
The great need for routine dental care to prevent caries resulting in preventable pain and needless extractions in Indian Country was first brought to our attention by 2015 Running Strong Dreamstarter Cristin Haase (Cheyenne River Sioux), then a promising dental student who wanted to help other Native Americans successfully apply to dental school who is now a dentist serving Native American children and families.
Since then we have shipped tens of thousands of Smile Strong dental kits to our partners throughout Indian Country including to our longtime partner, the Yuchi Language Project (YLP) in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, which is working to preserve its native tongue by instilling the language in young tribal children through immersion classes.
The YLP also receives annual shipments from Running Strong of basic necessities, including Smile Strong kits, and program administrator Halay Turning Heart told us that many of their students and families are struggling financially just to pay monthly bills…and dental kits are among the items they need to help them take care of their families.
“We use the dental kits to help the children learn how to brush their teeth in the Yuchi language,” says Halay. “The little kids are excited to learn how to use the items and take care of themselves!”
This April, we are working to double the number of dental kits shipped from 3,000 last year to 6,000, thanks to a Proctor & Gamble grant and are hoping to develop a curriculum for use in schools.
Among the organizations which received Smile Strong kits last year was Biluuke Strong in Crow Agency, Montana, and its founder Ember Singer who explained in her request for 200 more this year why the need there is so great:
“Some families can’t afford winter coats and boots, school supplies and even hand soap and toothbrushes are scarce in homes that don’t have water and electricity.”
Through our Smile Strong program, our overarching goal is to not only provide Native American children with the “tools for teeth” they need to keep their teeth and gums clean for today, but to instill in them at a young age the importance of proper, daily brushing and flossing so they will be “smiling strong” for the rest of their lives.