July 15, 2015

No smiling matter

By Bill Cirone

School is out for summer, we know. “In” are barbeques, baseball games, and U.S. Women’s World Cup titles. And viral video challenges, apparently. Last year’s Ice Bucket Challenge, designed to raise awareness of ALS, became a global social media phenomenon in July and August, with everyone from celebrities to schoolteachers getting doused. According to their website, the ALS Foundation received an astounding $115 million in donations during a six week period last summer.

Of course, it doesn’t take a million YouTube views or 10,000 “likes” on Facebook to signify a meaningful contribution to making a difference. Oftentimes it is the efforts of people and organizations who operate with low profiles, but who possess the requisite passion, focus, and expertise, who can change their parts of the world in measureable ways.

The dedicated staff of the County Education Office’s Health Linkages program and the amazing generosity of local funders, under the auspices of the Santa Barbara County Children’s Oral Health Collaborative, is a wonderful local example of that quiet yet determined commitment to improving lives.

But first, some statistics. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, tooth decay remains the most prevalent chronic disease in both children and adults, despite the fact that it is largely preventable. The CDC reports that, as of 2012, nearly 23% of children ages 2-5 had untreated decay in their primary teeth. And it gets worse. In Santa Barbara County, it affects nearly 35% of children attending subsidized preschool programs.

When cavities and decay become severe, a number of complications can follow. It can cause pain that interferes with daily living and which prevents kids from going to school. It can lead to nutrition problems resulting from painful chewing. Tooth loss invariably affects a person’s appearance, to say nothing of his or her confidence and self-esteem. And, while rare, a tooth abscess has the potential to cause serious and even life-threatening infections.

In short, oral health concern in children is nothing to smile about. Indeed, it is the seriousness of this issue that prompted the above partnership here in Santa Barbara County. And together they have made a difference. Their advocacy was instrumental in Santa Maria’s decision to fluoridate its water in 2005, the first and only city in Santa Barbara County to do so. The results are remarkable: in 2009, the dental disease rate in screened schoolchildren in Santa Maria peaked at 50%; that number currently sits at just over 20%.

But the partners in this effort also realized they should not to limit their attention to chronic tooth decay. Together, with the help of extraordinary generosity of the Orfalea Foundation, they launched pilot orthodontia projects over a three-year period in Lompoc and Santa Barbara. A total of 52 students were identified through oral screenings as having severe need, no untreated decay, excellent hygiene, and a financial need based on free and reduced lunch status.

“There is a tremendous need for orthodontic services for children in Santa Barbara County who cannot afford them,” says Georgene Lowe, who runs the Health Linkages program. “Matching resources to meet needs will always be a challenge in work like this. But working with community partners who care deeply, like the Orfalea Foundation, and who in turn change lives, makes the work incredibly rewarding.”

“We are interested in creating sustainable solutions through entrepreneurial partnerships,” says Orfalea Foundation Vice President Catherine Brozowski. “We know there are smart, compassionate people in our community with the resources and expertise to help transition this orthodontia project from the ‘pilot’ stage to permanence. That’s when the community partnerships can truly flourish.”

Oral Health Program Manager MaryEllen Rehse agrees. “I have personally seen the physical — and emotional — changes this pilot project has made in these kids’ lives,” she said. “To see a kid smile, after being too embarrassed to do so previously? That is the kind of thing that can make your day. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of making that happen for a young girl or boy?”

That’s a great question. “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do,” Mother Teresa once said. Smiles do matter. Our efforts to create smiles in Santa Barbara may not come with the fanfare of a viral video campaign, but that does not diminish their importance.

If you are interested in creating smiles for schoolchildren in Santa Barbara County, please contact MaryEllen Rehse at 964-4710, ext. 4465.