Building brighter futures, one smile at a time

In recognition of National Children’s Dental Health Month, we are highlighting the NCF network’s contributions toward helping children get the care they need.

Building brighter futures for Greater Nebraska sometimes means inspiring bigger, brighter smiles.

In 2022, North Central District Health Department (NCDHD) completed a 5-year, $125,000 challenge grant issued by Nebraska Community Foundation and an anonymous donor for the benefit of the Miles of Smiles school-based oral screening and fluoride varnish program.

Nebraska Community Foundation issued the challenge grant in 2017, paid in five $25,000 annual installments. The department matched those funds on a one-to-one basis, receiving donations from local foundations, county governments, and individual donors, many of whom made multi-year pledges. These local donors contributed more than $177,040—above and beyond challenge requirements.

“We are so fortunate for this funding and the partners to help and support the Miles of Smiles program and the importance of children’s oral health,” said Miles of Smiles Program Coordinator Sara Twibell. “We thank Nebraska Community Foundation and our anonymous donor for giving Miles of Smiles this wonderful opportunity to grow and sustain itself.”

The challenge grant enabled NCDHD to expand Miles of Smiles, which offers education, oral screenings, fluoride varnish, dental sealants, and supplies in school-based settings. The department provides services to the 38 elementary and middle schools within its nine-county service area.

Miles of Smiles increased participation throughout the challenge grant period, averaging 56% in 2022, an increase from 49% in the 2017/2018 school year. Miles of Smiles also added more sealant programs, going from two per year to eight in 2019. The funding also helped NCDHD boost marketing efforts for the program, increasing social media use, visits with school administrators, radio advertisements and more. The funding also allowed NCDHD to hire two contracted dental hygienists to conduct clinics and assist with education and marketing.

“Moving forward into 2023 we plan to continue our program and to continue to secure funding in order to keep these services going for our district’s youth,” Twibell said.

Similar challenge grants are underway with the Panhandle Health District, Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department, and Two Rivers Public Health Department, each of which have outreach programs akin Miles of Smiles. In a report summing up its progress so far, Two Rivers said the grant has helped the department establish stronger relationships to better serve the district.

A partnership between Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services, the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Dentistry, NCF, and the same anonymous donor is helping Nebraska children get a head start on proper dental care.

Almost 65% of Nebraska third graders have experienced tooth decay of some variety, according to the DHHS’ 2016 Nebraska Oral Health Survey. Nearly half of the children enrolled in Head Start programs throughout the state reported tooth decay as well. That’s troubling for experts like Nebraska State Dental Director Dr. Charles Craft because, among other concerns, untreated decay can lead to a condition known as Early Childhood Caries (ECC).

“This process creates acids that quickly start to destroy the enamel on the teeth resulting in cavities,” Craft said. “Decay can start on multiple teeth and if left untreated can create acute pain and chronic infections.”

The four entities are putting dental health starter kits in the hands of thousands of families, guiding Nebraska children down a path toward comprehensive wellness for the rest of their lives.  The kits include brushes for multiple stages of development accompanied by instructions and a two-minute sand timer. The Office of Oral Health and Dentistry began distributing kits seven years ago to local health departments throughout Nebraska. As of 2022, NCF had sponsored the distribution of nearly 27,000 kits. The partners agreed to continue the effort through at least 2023 and distribute another 25,000 kits.

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