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Give Kids a Smile partnership enters second school year at Nelson Mandela Elementary

Monday, August 21 and Tuesday, August 22 were special days at Nelson Mandela Elementary School, when a new class of students joined their peers in receiving free dental care from the Creighton University School of Dentistry.

Tucker GKSAs part of Creighton’s Give Kids a Smile effort, approximately 170 students skipped through the school’s gymnasium with anticipation to grab a goody bag, put on a pair of cool sunglasses and take a seat in a dentist’s chair. Last January, Creighton adopted the year-round Nelson Mandela School to help children who live in an underserved community in North Omaha practice good tooth-brushing habits. Students have their own toothbrush and toothpaste and brush their teeth twice a day in their classrooms.

Twice a year for the next five years, Creighton University will host free dental clinics at the school as part of the Give Kids a Smile partnership. The goal is to ensure students are cavity-free by 2023. During the clinics, students will receive fluoride-varnish and dental sealants, which are protective coatings for teeth that help minimize cavities.

During a clinic last spring, 140 students from kindergarten through second grade received treatments. Approximately 30 more students were treated at an August clinic after a new kindergarten class enrolled at the school. Each year, the school will add a new grade of students until the year 2020, when the elementary school will serve approximately 300 children from kindergarten to fifth grade.

After receiving fluoride-varnish applications and sealants, students visited with dental hygienists and interacted with health stations, one of which showed students exactly how many sugar cubes are typically in some of their favorite beverages. Another station had iPads with wellness apps installed so students could play games as they learned about good habits for brushing their teeth.

Creighton alumna and Nelson Mandela Principal Susan Toohey, EdD’12, says she has seen the program evolve since it started back in January. “Students look forward to brushing their teeth every day and have made a routine of it,” Toohey said.

“Parents are very appreciative of the program, and the students say they are no longer scared of visiting the dentist.”

Toohey says the school also has updated its wellness policy since the partnership started. Students are no longer allowed to bring sugary snacks to school to share with their classmates.

The Give Kids a Smile partnership with Nelson Mandela Elementary was researched and spearheaded by Creighton dental student Stuart Tucker. Tucker has a soft spot for children and is seeking a residency in pediatric dentistry after he graduates from Creighton in May. Currently, Tucker is staffing the free clinics, but he also has formed partnerships with dentists in the community who have agreed to provide free or low-cost dental care for children in the program.

Tucker says providing affordable dental care is important because students in low-income families often don’t have dental insurance.

The partnership at Nelson Mandela has received positive feedback from parents. Tucker says he spoke with a parent whose daughter missed several days of school due to chronic tooth pain. After surgeries and fillings to fix four of her teeth, the girl is now pain free. Tucker says the girl received thousands of dollars in dental care for around $50, thanks to a voucher system the Give Kids a Smile program offers to children who have urgent dental issues.

Ignoring dental issues can lead to infections that can spread to the jaw or other bones in the face and skull. Also, left untreated, those issues can worsen problems associated with diabetes and can even lead to heart complications. To prevent dental issues, children should brush their teeth twice a day, for two minutes each time. Tucker says the biggest mistake parents make is not supervising their children to make sure they’re brushing their teeth correctly. He says that there are mobile apps parents can download to make brushing fun for their kids.

“Making it fun is the important thing. If someone hates brushing their teeth as a kid, they’ll hate it as an adult,” Tucker said. “Having good brushing habits can better a child’s life and give them hope.”

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