Friday morning hundreds of Ridge View Elementary students shuffled past the principal’s office to a back office room. The kids sat in chairs around the room and learned about taking care of their teeth.
One little boy proudly brushed a big pink stuffed dinosaur’s teeth, while other children opened wide and waited patiently for a dental hygienist to examine their teeth.
Dentists and hygienists from around the valley donated their time to provide free dental screening for the Ridge View students. Lorie Becker coordinates the free dental clinic. She works at the Montana State University Office of Rural Health and doubles as a dental hygienist.
This year, Becker said the scope of the screenings is larger than ever. In 2013, dentists and hygienists will screen 6,000 kids in 40 schools around the state.
Belgrade School Nurse Connie Bengston said Becker and her crew have conducted the free dental screenings in years past. For the first time ever this year, Belgrade Intermediate School students will receive dental screenings.
On Friday, dentists indentified 19 children in need of urgent care, meaning they are in pain and most likely need a tooth pulled or a cavity filled as soon as possible. Bengston calls each of those kids’ parents to try to set up follow-up dental care.
“When kids are in dental pain they can’t function in school,” Bengston said. “The whole dental community is so supportive of meeting the needs of these kids.”
Becker said she thought about 95 percent of the Ridge View student body received free screenings. During the screenings, children travel to different stations to have their teeth examined and learn about how to take care of their teeth. Bengston said kids love the screenings because they combine the exam with fun, interactive activities.
Kelsey Fraser is the dental coordinator for the free screening project. Her position was created this year from a grant Becker secured from the American Dental Association.
Fraser, a pre-dental student at MSU, is responsible for inputting children’s dental information into a database. She goes through each child’s dental screening results and finds the students with special needs.
Once Fraser has made a list of students who urgently need dental care, she will call the school nurse to get the family’s contact information. From there, Fraser works at pairing the family with a dentist they can afford, or getting them on the path to signing up for the Healthy Montana Kids insurance plan.
While Fraser and Bengston’s tasks may overlap when it comes to contacting families, Becker said it’s a good, persistent reminder for parents.
“Last year we referred more than 100 kids to free dental care,” Becker said. “Only six took advantage of that.”
That was another reason Fraser’s position was created, to make sure families don’t feel overwhelmed with finding and affording a dentist when their child desperately needs one.
There are a number of dentists in both Belgrade and Bozeman that accept HMK insurance. Fraser said there are some dentists that will even provide pro bono dental work to families that cannot pay and don’t have insurance.
“It’s amazing how many people will offer free dental care,” Fraser said.
In every facet of the screenings, Becker wants to be effective. The little mirrors used to look inside kids’ mouths will be sanitized and given to a Montana dentist who takes them third world countries.
From the gloves to the mouth mirrors, to the take home kits with brushing instructions and toothbrushes for kids, nearly all of the dental screening supplies are donated.
Becker’s passion for dental health started when she was in elementary school. She always wanted to be a hygienist. Teachers told her she wasn’t smart enough and her family was too poor. While Becker did grow up without running water, she did have the smarts for dental school. A dentist in Becker’s Minnesota hometown encouraged her along the path to becoming a hygienist.
Now Becker has the respect of her colleagues and staff at schools around the state. More importantly, she gets to live her dream of helping improve children’s dental health.
Montana needs Becker’s kind of help, too. The Pew Charitable Trust Foundation gave Montana an F on a dental health report card in 2011. According to Pew’s research, only 30 percent of children on Medicaid, or HMK insurance, are getting dental care.
Becker hopes the 200 trained volunteers putting on the dental screenings throughout the state will change that grade.
Later this month, the troop of dental professionals will screen kids at Heck/Quaw and the Intermediate School. Parents must sign a consent form to allow their kids to be screened.