Dental Health is Good Health

I got to meet the team behind these dental kits for the spring 2017 issue of Eugene Magazine. Once Sylvia Barry and Michael Coughlin learned the extent of childhood dental disease in Oregon, they devised a plan to get dental care kits into the hands of every child in Lane County. That meant assembling and delivering 30,000 kits.

Childhood dental disease is Oregon’s silent epidemic.

Dental Kits Spring 2017 Eugene Mag

Neither Sylvia Barry nor Michael Coughlin anticipated how gripped they would become by the issue of childhood dental disease in Lane County. After realizing what a huge problem it actually is, the pair, along with other individuals and businesses, have teamed up to deliver 30,000 dental care kits, one to every child in Lane County—a one-two punch to childhood dental disease, right in the mouth, so to speak.

Before distribution in early February, Burley’s warehouse was filled with crate after crate of small plastic zippered cases, each filled with a full-sized tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, floss, a timer and brushing instructions in both English and Spanish. The flipside of the instructional page includes low-cost dental clinics and 211 information, which links people to social services.

“We have 600 man hours into assembling this,” says Coughlin. “And it’s a full-sized tube of toothpaste!” he says, with obvious pride. “It was important to me that it be a full-sized tube. More toothpaste for them.” Barry is vice president of resource development for United Way of Lane County. Coughlin is CEO of Burley, designers of bike trailers and jogging strollers, based in Eugene. Last year, Burley helped deliver 5,000 dental kits—2,600 to schoolchildren in Bethel’s school district and the remainder to local agencies.

Once people learned about this effort, they continued to get requests for more kits. “This year, every child from the ages of 3 to 10, basically through sixth grade, will get a kit, from the Cascades to the coast,” Barry says. If kids are not in school, agencies that serve children will reach them.

Burley, Fresh Dental (Dr. Jeff Jentzsch) and Kaiser Permanente sponsored the kits. Seventeen local companies and other individuals supported the dental kit project by volunteering to assemble the kits. “Dental health care in Oregon is a serious concern,” says Coughlin. “And children in poverty have twice the rate of dental disease.”

Lack of dental hygiene awareness and continuously snacking on readily available, inexpensive foods containing a lot of sugar and drinking sweetened drinks throughout the day, in addition to a lack of fluoride, contributes to Oregon’s high rate of tooth decay. The problem is far-reaching. Children miss school due to infections and pain from tooth decay. They experience reduced productivity and poor self-image, all of which limits their educational success. “You can’t send a kid to school with aching teeth and expect them to learn anything,” says Coughlin.

Barry and Coughlin both tell heart-wrenching stories. One of a 3-year-old who had to get all of his baby teeth extracted due to tooth decay. Last year, when Coughlin gave out one of the kits, the child exclaimed with obvious joy that he wouldn’t have to share a toothbrush with his siblings anymore.

This action stems from the United Way’s leadership of the 2015 Community Health Improvement Plan, which assessed the overall health of our community. Oral health was repeatedly mentioned as an issue. At the same time, Coughlin was part of state-level action to address dental health through the Oregon Community Foundation. Once the pair heard these stories and learned the statistics, they knew they needed to act to take a bite out of this problem. And Coughlin really wanted to do something local.

“February is Children’s Oral Health Month, but there wasn’t much going on in our community around this,” says Coughlin. He was searching for an activity that would jumpstart more volunteerism at Burley—which the company provides paid time off for—and when he suggested the dental kits last year, interest among his employees grew and demand for the kits soared.

Early intervention is key to children learning to care for their teeth. Not all kids learn from their parents. Pediatricians are starting to ask about dental care habits now. Coughlin and Barry are providing the schools with resources such as posters and lesson plans to teach kids about brushing.

“No matter your economic or social level you can have a kid who is resisting brushing,” Barry says. “This is a very tangible solution to a very real problem—and a very local solution.”


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