CHESHIRE — Starting in February, in observation of National Children's Dental Health Month, and continuing into this month, staff from Hillcrest Dental Care Inc. have been going to local schools to sit kids down and talk to them and their teachers about how nutrition and oral hygiene are connected to good long-term health.
The project, now in its fifth year, is supported by approximately $11,650 in grant funding from the Massachusetts Dental Society Foundation, Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, Greylock Federal Credit Union and Hillcrest Hospital.
When all is said and done, the dental clinic will have sent three hygienists — Michelle Gibbs-Supranowicz, Kayla Kennedy and Emily Russell — to see nearly 400 children across eight schools, along with on Hillcrest campuses. This year's participants are Tot Spot; Craneville, Kittredge, Cheshire and Lee elementary schools; Becket Washington School, Berkshire Christian School and Adams Head Start.
"If you don't have good oral health habits early on, then you're not just looking at cavities in the mouth, but it can lead to bigger health problems down the road," said Hillcrest Human Resource Manager Kristen Elcox, who helps coordinate the program.
Hillcrest has the capacity to reach out to 1,500 children in 30 different schools, and Elcox said the clinic is still ready and willing to sign more schools up for a session.
When the three dental hygienists go to schools, they work to capture kids' attention by asking the youngsters questions about what they know, and then showing them tools and examples of how to keep their mouths — teeth, tongues, gums and all — healthy.
During a recent visit to Cheshire Elementary School, Kennedy said the kids love her buddy "Dino," a bright green plush dinosaur with a denture-style mouth of human-like teeth. Using oversized toothbrushes, kids and Kennedy can demonstrate on Dino how to properly brush teeth and gums, to keep his pearly whites bright.
Kennedy said kids are naturally curious. "They want to know everything about the mouth," she said. During her presentation to first-graders, she asked kids to look at an array of magnetic snacks and pin the unhealthy snacks onto a picture of a tooth to show how sugar sticks. In a matter of minutes, kids knew that an apple was a healthier, less tooth-taxing option than sticky, sugary jelly beans.
"I think it's good to have the program," said Cheshire Elementary nurse Philip Grover. "They basically call us, then bring in the pros to talk about the importance of dental hygiene." He said the school also participates in the state fluoride rinse program, for any parents opting their child in.
As part of the program, kids also receive a toothbrush, timer, toothpaste, floss, school supplies, and a small toy, as well as brochures for parents, including information on how to access MassHealth benefits for dental coverage.
"Starting them when they're really young, flossing and brushing at 5 or 6 years old means they're more likely to do so when they're 30," Kennedy said.