Last Friday afternoon, Jan. 27, at Nelson Mandela Elementary School in North Omaha, the air in the classrooms thrummed with an anticipatory electricity.
In the halls, students caught sight of blue jackets and a familiar logo and a whisper went running through the school: the Bluejays were here. And they brought toothbrushes.
Jan. 27 became the first day in the shared mission between Nelson Mandela and the Creighton University School of Dentistry to help the elementary school’s 140 students improve their dental health. It all started with a school-wide assembly on the importance of brushing one’s teeth, an effort that attracted Creighton mascot Billy Bluejay and brought rampant cheers of “Go Bluejays!” from the children.
“Bringing dental health to the kids at school works,” said Stuart Tucker, a third-year dental student from Bonners Ferry, Idaho, who led the effort to organize his peers in the dental school for the day, which saw children learn the appropriate technique for tooth brushing. “When we look at dental health, there are really two sides to it. There’s the biological side which tells us that oral health is crucial to overall health, and then there’s a social element. Kids are more confident learners, more comfortable in what they pursue, when they have a bright, happy smile.”
Long a partner in several elementary schools in the Omaha area and a participant in the annual Give Kids a Smile event which usually opens February, National Children’s Dental Health Month, Creighton decided to take that advocacy and the one-day affair and expand it into a year-long partnership with Nelson Mandela.
Kim McFarland, DDS, professor and chair of community and preventive dentistry at Creighton, said the idea is to create a “dental home” for students and families at the elementary school. In addition to regular visits by dental faculty and students, Creighton is also helping defray some of the costs of dental care with a voucher system allowing children to receive as much dental care as can be provided on a visit to the School of Dentistry’s clinic for $10.
The partnership’s ultimate goal is to foster good oral health habits in the hope of reaching the goal of a cavity-free school by 2023.
“We will go to where the children are and provide as much service as can be provided within the elementary school,” McFarland said. “By ‘dentally adopting’ the Nelson Mandela School, we are saying we will provide a dental home for you throughout the year, not just for a day once a year.”
Following Friday’s pep rally featuring Billy Bluejay, students returned to their classrooms where School of Dentistry faculty and students provided tutorials on proper tooth brushing. The students each received their own toothbrush, which will be stored on a rack in the classroom. Going forward, students will brush in class twice a day.
Creighton alumna and Nelson Mandela Principal Susan Toohey, EdD’12, said she looks forward to watching the program evolve and to seeing students healthier and more confident as a result of the increased attention to oral health.
“Making tooth brushing a part of the school day just makes sense,” Toohey said. “When you’re 5, 6, 7 years old, there’s a ripple effect that we hope will help establish good habits for the rest of your life and it’s also something our students can help spread at home to siblings and parents. A large part of our school’s mission is to impact the community and what bigger way to do that than with focusing on those things you can do to improve your overall health?”
On Thursday, Feb. 2, Creighton students and faculty will return to Nelson Mandela to provide a dental screening, fluoride treatments, and dental education. Future visits to the Nelson Mandela school will include dental sealant programs, nutrition education and a health fair with games for the children.
“If your teeth aren’t in good shape, it affects your ability to chew, smile, talk,” said Tracy Tondl, the school nurse at Nelson Mandela. “There’s the risk of infections. If we can establish some of these habits now and get the students used to brushing, to talking about oral health, it’s just one of those seemingly little things that can make a big difference in a person’s overall health.”