Kindergartners and first-graders receive a dental health kit that includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, two-minute timer and floss.

Taught by the Tooth Fairy

While other fifth-graders were in class on a recent Tuesday listening to their teacher, Daniel Olson was stretched out in a dental chair in the lost and found room at Kennedy Elementary School in Medford.

Here, two dental assistants were checking for cavities and reminding Daniel to brush long enough to remove all the Animal Crackers crumbs from his teeth.

He nodded.

"I know it's important that I floss so I don't let plaque build up on the sides of my teeth," says Daniel, who was coincidentally wearing a T-shirt with an image of shark jaws surrounding the words "Bite Me."

Daniel is one of 6,000 children getting a free dental education and for some, free dental treatments, at school this year, thanks to La Clinica's mobile program Happy Smiles.

It's not just about brushing and flossing. Dental problems affect a child's ability to learn, say educators.

"Students with chronic dental pain have a hard time focusing on instruction and have poor attendance rates," says Kennedy Principal Tom Ettel. "Through education, screening and sealant clinics, we see an increase in health, leading to an increase in attendance and learning."

La Clinica's mobile clinic visits 16 local elementary schools to show students how to have healthy teeth and gums for life.

Lessons are taught by four licensed dental assistants and are geared to different age groups.

A puppet with big teeth, a movie starring Goofy or a chimpanzee, and teeth-themed children's books are incorporated into educational sessions.

Kindergartners and first-graders receive information — and a dental health kit that includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, two-minute timer and floss — from the Tooth Fairy, played by Joanne Nave, a dental assistant who lives in Central Point.

Little girls gaze up at Nave's pink gown and boys flick at her wings.

Kids also wiggle at a loose baby tooth, hoping it will fall out so they can take it home in a molar-shaped container on a lanyard.

Second- and third-graders hear from dental assistant Deanna Daniel of Eagle Point that, despite playground gossip, snot does not whiten teeth.

Fourth-graders learn to read food labels to watch out for sugar from Angela Bernal of Medford.

And fifth- and sixth-graders find out about the dental drawbacks of oral piercings, tobacco and drugs from Debbie Perkins of Eagle Point.

With parental permission, the dental team conducts one-on-one checkups and applies fluoride varnishes to help prevent cavities.

Jackson County has no community fluoridated water and few dental health prevention programs funded through the state or public health entities.

Half of the county's population is not covered by insurance, according to state reports.

Even parents with dental coverage find it is hard to take a child to the dentist during the work day.

All of these factors leads to children not receiving needed care, says Maria Ramos Underwood of La Clinica. In 2004, the Oregon Community Foundation — with a gift for Jackson County children from Reed and Carolee Walker — joined with La Clinica, which provides a sliding-scale dental program.

Together, they created Happy Smiles, which costs about $200,000 a year.

Services are free to those with and without insurance. If a child's family is insured, the insurance company is billed for fluoride varnish and sealants, but the family does not pay a deductible or co-pay.

"It's a lot of organizational work, but in terms of an investment, if we provide dental services for all children, we can get a handle on the dental care crisis in our community," says Underwood.

Over its nine-year history, the program has been able to reduce cavities with instructions about lifelong healthy oral hygiene.

"The big hope is that children get a consistent message about dental care and the basic information that cavities are fully preventable," says Underwood. "By the time the child has a toothache, it's an active cavity. By the time some people come in to see us at the clinic, they have infection, pain and swelling, and that requires a lot of treatment."

Ettel says that before La Clinica's school program, low-income families had to travel to Grants Pass to access free or low-cost dental services. Distance and time constraints meant students would go without screenings and dental sealants.

Today, even children with healthy teeth learn from the program's structured curriculum, Ettel says.

On this day at Kennedy Elementary, the four dental assistants took a short break after screening children for a few hours. As if cast in a movie, all of them have photogenic smiles, which they flash often.

They laughed when they recognized children whose feet now dangle off the end of the dental chair.

And they shook their heads when they talked about a second-grader they recently screened who has 11 cavities in 24 teeth.

The team says that children younger than fourth grade don't have the motor skills to properly brush and they need parental help.

In between bites of her apple, Perkins says one of the biggest obstacles the team faces is that parents think the program is only for children from low-income families.

"We see kids with insurance who have tooth decay," says Perkins, who adds that the team asks children to share the importance of brushing and flossing with five other people.

"We want to educate the whole family," she says, with the Tooth Fairy smiling nearby.

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