Albany dentist Scott Nicholson is showing 8-year-old Keisha an x-ray of her teeth. “Mom can come take a look too,” he says, inviting Keisha’s mother to join them at the screen.
Keisha’s mom leans over to see the x-ray from the wall between the two exam rooms where she hovers, simultaneously watching her daughter and her 11-year-old son, Cesar, as they have their teeth cleaned.
On the wall behind Keisha and Cesar’s mom, framed pages from Dr. Seuss’s “The Tooth Book” show whimsically drawn characters like Smiling Sam the crocodile, who stretches his mouth wide to reveal rows of gleaming white teeth. More of these excerpts, bordered in colorful paper and hung in glass frames, adorn the other soft blue and tan walls of the Boys & Girls Club of Albany dental clinic, where the brother and sister are receiving care.
As Nicholson explains the light and dark shapes of the x-ray, two hygienists move quietly between the exam rooms and the clinic’s sterilizing area, setting up equipment for Keisha’s cleaning and fluoride treatment.
While the dentists are friendly and the environment relaxing, what’s particularly remarkable about this trip to the dentist is that both children’s treatment, as well as any follow-up care at the clinic, is free of charge.
It took the efforts of a community to make this clinic a reality. Last year, the Boys & Girls Club, Samaritan Albany General Hospital, Albany InReach Services and Albany dentist Mike Goger collaborated to visualize a clinic where uninsured children could receive free dental care. To bring the clinic to reality, four Oregon State University students worked closely with the Boys & Girls Club for several strenuous weeks to apply knowledge they’d gained in the classroom to secure funding for the clinic.
OSU graduate students Chantell James, Stacy Nedry-Johnson, Alison Olson and Alynn Vienot became part of the collaboration in spring of 2010 when professor Nancy Seifert, who was teaching a public health class the four students shared, suggested they work on a grant for the dental clinic as a class project.
The students worked with Boys & Girls Club staff to write a grant to the Oregon Community Foundation that led to a $117,500 award to support the construction and operation of the dental clinic.
“I had no idea when we started that it would actually turn into a successful outcome,” Vienot says. “It’s really touching to see the work we did in this class be put into a tangible form that’s actually going to impact the health in the community for a long time.”
According to Seifert, the four took the project beyond course requirements, beginning work before spring break and continuing into the summer.
“This was a true labor of love,” Seifert says. “These dedicated young women just took this project and ran with it and were able to take a classroom assignment and translate it to a working dental clinic. I’m so proud of them.”
In addition to treating uninsured children in Linn County, the clinic has been able to expand beyond the group’s original goals to treat children enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan’s Healthy Kids program as well. According to Danielle Smith, Albany Boys & Girls Club health services coordinator, these children can receive free exams, cleanings, x-rays, fluoride treatments, sealants, fillings, extractions and emergency care at the clinic.
When the students began the project, none of them had past grant-writing experience. Though they were intimidated to take responsibility for the success of a project where care for children was at stake, Nedry-Johnson says the importance of the grant motivated the group to put all of their efforts into the work.
“The four of us gave it everything we had,” Nedry-Johnson says. “We met in class, out of class, at each other’s houses. Really our lives were focused on this grant for weeks, and there were lots of very firm deadlines that we had to keep. It’s kind of like a baptism by fire when you’re writing a grant, because you have to do what they are requiring you to do. There are no deviations.”
To write a successful grant, the students delved into information the Boys & Girls Club had collected about the need for children’s dental care in the community and continued the research. They studied the numbers of children visiting the emergency room and missing school due to dental pain, dental care programs in other states, and the resources and community partners that would be needed to support the clinic. After weeks of research, they brought their information together to write the grant that would obtain more than half of the total funds that were needed to open the clinic.
Other grants for the $200,000 project to renovate and furnish the clinic with equipment also came from the Ford Family Foundation, the Murdoch Foundation and the Dental Foundation of Oregon, Seifert says.
Vienot, a registered dental hygienist, says the project was particularly close to her heart. She visited the completed clinic and enjoyed seeing the valuable resource her work helped to create.
“I feel a sense of satisfaction that we put so much labor and effort into it for the children’s sakes, and there is a sense of joy in being able to see them actually being served now,” Vienot says.
The clinic opened April 15, 2011, and is currently open to children two days each month, though Smith says she hopes the clinic will soon be able to offer care more frequently. Volunteer dentists from the community perform all of the clinic’s procedures. Each dentist who participates spends at least two days working at the clinic during the school year.
To identify children in need of dental care, clinic staff and volunteer dentists hold screenings in area schools. On an average clinic day, Smith says the clinic can treat around 10 children. Thus far, 130 children have been treated at the clinic, and more than 300 have been screened in Albany schools.
In addition to dental care, children and their families receive preventative education as part of their treatment plan.
“It’s about the whole health of the child too, it’s not just about their dental care,” Smith says. “We talk about nutrition, and it’s just getting the education out to people.”
While the majority of the clinic’s services are reserved for children, free emergency procedures for adults are coordinated through Albany InReach Services to be performed on select days at the Boys & Girls Club clinic.
Following the project, James, Nedry-Johnson, Olson and Vienot have continued to work toward their goals in public health. Writing the grant inspired Nedry-Johnson to focus the thesis she is writing for her master’s degree on the need for accessible children’s dental care.
Vienot graduated with her master’s degree in public health last spring and plans to use her limited access permit, which allows her to perform dental hygiene work unsupervised in the community, to provide dental care to underserved populations.
“I came back to school because I care about dental public health,” Vienot says. “I’m really interested in helping those who can’t afford to access care.”