Today I visited my alma mater Niagara College to follow around the good people in the dental hygiene program and write about their partnership with the Welland Neighbourhood Project. The initiative is called Smiles for All and brings selected students from local elementary schools to hygiene students, so children from low income families can access the dental care that is critical to their health and dental hygiene students can gain much-needed experience. Sounds easy enough on the surface, but in conversation with a program faculty member, I found the work that goes on behind the scenes to follow privacy legislation (which helps protect people on low income, but also hinders the process of getting them care and places barriers that must be overcome by the people wanting to provide that care) is fascinating stuff, at least to this scribe. I soon came to realize this was about much more than dental students cleaning kids' teeth.This was a story about overcoming challenges, from the transportation issue currently plaguing the entire Niagara region to the realities low income families deal with every day. For some of those kids, today was the first time, or the first time in a long time, they have seen a dentist. This is a sad concept for someone who has spent her 25 years taking regular dental visits for granted. The program co-ordinator was telling me about some of the diseases some of these youngsters already have and how oral health is critical to general health. A conversation with another staff member of the program resonated with me as well - she questioned the fact that families are still dealing with access to care issues in the Golden Horseshoe, in Niagara, in Canada, in 2010. Good on Niagara College and the Welland Neighbourhood Project for helping this section of invisible minorities who can very easily fall through the system's cracks but deserve just as much access to care as anyone else.
The article follows and can also be read at the Welland Tribune's website
BY ALLISON SMITH/For The Tribune
Clean smiles were the order of the day at Niagara College Wednesday.
As part of the Shiny Smiles for All clinic put on by Niagara College and the Welland Neighbourhood Project, 25 students in the college’s Dental Hygiene program hosted about 13 elementary school students from five different schools (St. Mary, Mathews, Princess Elizabeth, Plymouth and Empire) at the Welland campus’ Dr. James Sim Dental Clinic Wednesday for the first of two preventative clinics.
Wednesday’s clinic included needs assessments, radiographs, cleaning, fluoride treatments, sealants and oral hygiene education and instruction.
The students involved in the Shiny Smiles for All program are chosen by the schools’ principals based on need and the fact they are from low income families.
Though “oral hygiene is key to general health,” many of those families face barriers to receiving care, such as lack of transportation, said Ursula Pelissero, a faculty member of the college’s Dental Hygiene program.
“Transportation is a huge issue,” said Pelissero. Many parents are unable to acquire transportation and time off work to get their families to regularly scheduled appointments. Privacy legislation is another obstacle to overcome. By law, the college was not able to legally access the children they were trying to serve. Staff must work with Niagara Region’s Public Health department, which visits local schools to assess students’ condition. If they require further care, a letter is sent home with students asking parents for their consent to allow their child to participate in the Shiny Smiles for All clinic and the child’s medical information. Parents mail the form to Public Health, which lets the school know how many students will be attending. Though Pelissero said she understands why the law is there and is needed, it’s also a challenge.
The college and the Welland Neighbourhood Project were able to find a solution to the problem of access to care when Pelissero was asked to sit on the Project’s board as a community partner and suggested partnering to bring care to members of the community who often have trouble accessing service.
The United Way of South Niagara and the Rotary Club of Welland pay for the products used by the college’s students.
A range of community partners work together under the umbrella of the Welland Neighbourhood Project to fill four needs of the community including family literacy, dental care, nutrition and after school programs and activities, said Carolyn Fast, project co-ordinator of the organization.
The elementary school students aren’t the only ones who learn a valuable lesson by having a positive experience in a dental office, said Pelissero. At the same time they are developing good habits to last a lifetime, students of the Dental Hygiene program develop a sense of giving back to the community.
Pelissero said the ability to access care is critical for people of every income bracket, since the mouth is “the only area open to the outside. Bacteria, illnesses and everything can (enter) through the mouth. Everything is connected. We’re not separate puzzle pieces. We fit together.”
The same is true for the people involved in efforts to better their community, she said.
Thirty-five-year-old Leigh Mason, a second-year student of the Dental Hygiene program, agreed.
She has learned through much hands-on experience in the college’s program that “patient care is number one.”
Meeting and helping people “from all walks of life” was a positive experience for her.
Twenty-one-year-old Christina Diprose, also a second-year student, said, “These clinics are a lot of fun” because child patients are generally not as serious as their adult counterparts. She added she was eager to impart knowledge her patient could put into practice at home.
“There are so many families and so many children who really need dental care. Yeah, we’re only helping a few kids, but it’s a good start. It serves the public in such a great way.”
Captions: (top photo): Jessica Armstrong, a second-year student of Niagara College's dental hygiene program, cleans the teeth of one of the elementary school students visiting the clinic Wednesday as part of Shiny Smiles for All.
(middle photo): Second-year student Leigh Mason cleans the teeth of one of the elementary school students visiting the Shiny Smiles for All clinic.
(last photo): Second-year student Christina Deprose takes a look into the mouth of an elementary school student visiting the Shiny Smiles for all clinic.